Being Emmys biggest loser (0 for 21) should have prepared Bill Maher for yesterday's snub by the Oscars for his incendiary feature documentary "Religulous." Though the film, which dares to question organized religion, made a very respectable $12 million at the box office, it divided critical opinion and managed to score only 55 at Metacritic. While it earned raves from the likes of Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) and Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), there were also pans from noted reviewers Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) and Neely Tucker (Washington Post).
To earn a place on the short list of 15, "Religulous" needed to pass muster with the documentary branch of the academy. Select branch members screened all eligible films: those that played at least one week in L.A. and Gotham before the end of August, were at least 41 minutes long and had not been shown on TV or the Internet for at least 60 days after finishing qualifying runs on both coasts. (Two top-grossing documentaries — "Young @ Heart" and "Up the Yangtze" — were disqualified because of airings on British and Canadian TV, respectively.)
Not surprisingly, those serious-minded film folk rejected this effort by two TV vets. Though Maher has earned his stripes with his often inflammatory rhetoric on "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time With Bill Maher," director Larry Charles (a two-time Emmy winner for "Seinfeld") is best known in Hollywood as the man behind the mockumentary "Borat."
Maher and Charles are certainly in good company. Among the other films that failed to make the cut were the two big concert documentaries of the year -- "U2 3D" (a 3D film featuring the Irish rock band U2) and "Shine a Light" (Oscar winner Martin Scorsese's Imax edition of a concert by the Rolling Stones.) Both films fared well with the critics and the public -- the U2 film scored 83 at Metacritic and made $10 million while the Rolling Stones pleased enough ardent fans to make $7 million and come in at 76 at Metacritic.
Two high profile bio docs also missed the mark. "Gonzo," a look at the life of the late Hunter S. Thompson, had enough supporters among the critics to score 73 at Metacritic and made over $1 million. "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," an examination of the legal troubles of the Oscar-winning director ("The Pianist"), earned a respectable 78 at Metacritic. However, this HBO-financed film barely played in theaters, earning all of $58,000.
Less surprisingly on the outs was the anti-Darwin doc "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." While Ben Stein's advocacy of intelligent design over the theory of evolution earned $7.5 million, it was met with critical derision, rating a mere 20 at Metacritic. And "American Teen" a look at the lives of four high school seniors, received only a passing grade from most critics -- scoring 66 at Meta Critic — and with audiences, earning just under $1 million.
Photo: Paramount Vantage