Imposed storyline sinks spiritual quest film 'Blue Like Jazz'
As Ringo says in Help (as the scimitar-wielding devotees of Kaili are chasing him down the beach to make him their next human sacrifice), "I don't want to knock anyone's religion, but..."
Steve Taylor's Blue Like Jazz attempts to mine that same vein of tolerant reasonableness, leavened with a dash of deadpan irreverence. But while the story of a likable young Texan confronting his beliefs during a year at bohemian Reed College in the Pacific Northwest appears to address serious issues of faith and doubt, what emerges is a very shrewdly designed propaganda machine in which all roads must lead back to God. There's nothing like a little walk on the wild side, this movie suggests, to make religious conformity look good again.
The film is adapted from a popular book of spiritual essays by author, corporate consultant, and campus ministry leader Donald Miller. Scriptwriters Miller, Taylor, and Ben Pearson's attempt to impose a fictional narrative on Miller's ideas creates a kind of tidy symmetry, but the device also makes for clumsy, less-than-credible storytelling. As a dramatic film, Blue Like Jazz loses its way.
Marshall Allman stars as a character named Don Miller, a clean-cut nice guy in a small Southern Baptist community in Texas. He leads Bible study classes, looks after his divorced mom, and has finished his first year at community college. His dad, "Hobo" (Eric Lange), lives in an Airstream trailer with a succession of jailbait girlfriends, listens to John Coltrane on vinyl, and opines "Life is like jazz: it never resolves." He advises fledgling writer Don to get out of Texas and "write your own story," somehow obtaining for him a transfer to liberal Reed in Portland, Ore.
Don isn't interested, until it's time for his crisis of faith (sort of). It's not enough that the slimy assistant youth pastor at his church employs a racist Mexican puppet in a sombrero to teach Bible stories, or gives the kids a cross-shaped piñata filled with gel-packs of communion juice instead of candy. But, since this is fiction, the married pastor is also sleeping with Don's mom. Don takes it out on God and heads for Reed, determined to leave all that "hypocrisy" behind.
He throws himself into the alternative universe of Reed with a vengeance. There's "Pope" (Justin Welborn), who wears a mitre and robes, dispenses free condoms, and burns conservative books in a shopping cart. There's "hot lesbian" Lauryn (Tania Raymonde); Don meets her in a men's room, and in the film's only affecting relationship, she becomes his first friend, advising him to keep his Christianity under wraps. (When he points out the campus tolerates religions like "S & M Wiccans," she retorts, "Do you have any idea what your hateful, bullying tribe has been up to?")
But mostly, he pursues blonde Penny (Claire Holt), who's into elaborate protests against corporate chain bookstores and bottled water. Don happily goes along, even gets arrested, to "fit in" in Penny's eyes, only to learn that—guess what? She read the Bible for the first time "in lit class" last year and now she's a groupie for Jesus (his portraits decorate her dorm room walls), who spends the holidays in India working with the poor. Suddenly, being Christian is cool again.
Rarely is anyone shown actually attending a class, and these kids have limitless funds to spend on costumes, pageantry, and beer. In Penny's room, Don finds the same Coltrane album he's gotten from his dad—and a turntable to play it on. Symbolically, Okay, her "cool" cred is established. But realistically, what college kid today even knows what a record player is? An honest evaluation of personal faith would be one thing, but everything that happens to Don is a reaction to external events, not an introspective searching within.
Like Don, most of the key characters experience some sort of personal revelation that draws them back, if not to the church per se, at least back to a comforting spiritual presence. Fine. But there's no room for healthy doubt in this equation; characters who don't get with the program by the final fadeout are, well, left behind, plotwise. This movie dabbles in a hip, anti-church-establishment viewpoint, but its agenda is pretty clear.
BLUE LIKE JAZZ
★★ (out of four)
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With Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, and Justin Welborn. Written by Donald Miller, Ben Pearson, and Steve Taylor. From the book by Donald Miller. Directed by Steve Taylor. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.
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