My ideal skeptical documentary would explore the idea that aspects of religion might well be adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint—but until that comes along, this will do. Maher doesn’t hang back in the studio and call his subjects dickheads like Penn Jillette in the Showtime series Bullshit! He’s in their faces, letting them have their (lame) say. As he delivered his climactic sermon in the Israeli desert, I murmured, “Amen, brother.” Religulous is a religious experience.
Robert De Niro once immersed himself in his roles to the point of nuttiness; now he cultivates a wry detachment in which dyspepsia substitutes for angst. He still has killer timing, though. His performance in the Hollywood-set comedy What Just Happened?has a wonderful deadpan foolishness. He plays a big-deal producer with professional and personal headaches, including a volcanic star (Bruce Willis, as himself) who refuses to shave a rabbinical beard for a film, and a soon-to-be-ex wife (Robin Wright Penn, blessedly grounded) who won’t take him back. As in many Hollywood satires, there’s no indication whether the projects in question are good enough to justify the histrionics. (It makes a difference.) But Barry Levinson directs snappily, and Art Linson (who wrote the script based on his memoir) nails the Wittgensteinian linguistic complexity of Hollywood-speak, in which truths are elaborately circumnavigated. What Just Happened? is a doodle, but its aura of dread seems earned.