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16 June 2005 (USA)  »

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Scratch America and you find religion, even when you're only looking for Bob Smith
24 November 2005 | by (Portland, Oregon, United States) – See all my reviews

Bob Smith is the commonest man's name in America. Of the 81,000+ Bob Smiths out there, Director Neil Abramson chose 12 or so among respondents to an ad, and narrowed the field down to 7 after interviews (one rejected him, he told us after the film). The idea was simply to do a doc about these 7 guys who ostensibly have only their name in common.

Reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's "granfalloon" – defined as a group of people held together by an insufficient bond, like Hoosiers – people from Indiana – in Vonnegut's novel, "Cat's Cradle." But to Abramson's surprise, another bond, a recurring theme of religiosity, emerged as he got to know these men, a fervor about faith that wasn't all that apparent in most of the preliminary interviews. Thus the film morphed into a series of observations on religion in America (where 27% of people are regular churchgoers vs. 7% in "Old" Europe).

Turns out that no fewer that 5 of the 7 Bob's are entangled to a significant degree with religion in some way, if you count the film's most personally charming and intriguing character, an atheist living in New York City who calls himself "Normal Bob Smith." A couple of times a month, he dolls up in horns, redface and a tux with red shirt to shock folks on the sidewalks (also present at the screening, he told me afterward that he's never encountered a violent response). He also maintains a website promoting atheism and related matters, including his provocative "Jesus Dress Up" paper costume cutouts.

Other Bob Smiths featured here include an evangelical clown who treats church kids better than his wife; a self-styled yogi guru whose false sincerity and preening manner suggest either psychopathy, end stage narcissism or both; a straightforward blues guitarist who directs music at a black gospel church; and an unctuous sheriff's candidate in Texas, who loses the election even though he drapes himself in right wing patriotism and the church. (The other two Bobs in the film are an embittered young photographer from Boston and a codger outsider artist whose installations around his property lack even a rumor of any aesthetic sensibility.)

The problem with this film is that once you get past Normal Bob, the interest value of these men drops sharply: most are worthy of only their families' attention. The strength of Abramson's film is its demonstration that when you scratch the surface of America just a smidge, you run headlong into religion. Sure, we knew this before, but it doesn't hurt to witness the various forms religiosity can take in our theologically obsessed culture. My rating: 6.5/10 (low B). (Seen at the 3rd AFI "Silverdocs" documentary film festival, Silver Spring, MD, on 06/16/05). If you'd like to read more of my reviews, send me a message for directions to my websites.


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