What You May Like:
- Christian-themes that are based on a more gritty outlook
- Good looking young and ambitious cast
- Satisfying conclusion
What You May Not:
- Script loses too much track of itself for too long
- Ridiculous and unrealistic exaggerations of modern college life
- Main character is mostly never actually likable
What You’ll Remember:
- Don’s final monologue
For quite a while the themes of Christianity in films have been presented with what can best be described as a pampering towards only Christians themselves; Hallmark-style films which do far too little to challenge what can be argued as the most influential and controversial set of religious beliefs known to mankind. The American non-Catholic Christian church beliefs are far too varied in their denominational doctrines to ever be fully and fairly summarized in one full-length film, therefore such ambitious independent directors have been the only ones to take hold of the task in evangelizing the message through film to reach as many of the masses as possible. The main problem has been that in such attempts, the more realistic and gritty acts of humanity have mostly been substituted for G-rated style films that feel a need to tailor to the entire family as to not offend the beliefs of the church itself, doing barely enough to become more accessible to the secular audience, who according to the Christian church, should need it most. Not only that, but considering Christianity is not the most liked faith in modern America, the films have only remained largely independent, and such is the case with Blue Like Jazz, film by director Steve Taylor based on the novel by Donald Miller, which does dare to take steps in challenging the standard, but at the same time has a tendency to lose track of its entire purpose too many times to fully serve both Christians and secular non-believers alike.
Jazz stars Marshell Allman, who plays Don Miller (obviously a nod to the novel author), a 19-year old young Christian man from a conservative Baptist church in Texas, who luckily gets his tuition paid for by his non-Christian father to the most “ungodly” university in America – Reed University, where extreme green party liberalism almost solely (and ridiculously) serves as its prime purpose for existing. Leaving behind his best friend and youth pastor which whom he serves youth ministry with, Miller soon finds himself itching to leave behind his former life due to not only his frustrations with his divorced parents, but also due to the fact that his youth pastor is having an extramarital affair with his own grieving mother. Such underacted hypocrisy by the cheating actors (Jason Marsden and Jenny Littleton) opens Don’s mind to a more progressive way of life. Once at his new university, Don notices like any other college student that being left out and isolated due to his Christian beliefs is set to be expected by a student body who sees his kind as nothing more than oppressive hypocritical bullies. Befriending a few people through attempting several of the school’s completely far-fetched extracurricular programs, Don soon perceives why his previous life was perhaps a gigantic brain-washing lie, and learns the importance of burning books in an attempt to counter the corrupt establishment, co-ed bathrooms, and really, just hanging out without any care for studying and going to class… or at least that’s what the film presents to us. Besides the one love interest Don meets, a young unique girl named Penny (Claire Holt), he is perfectly happy forgetting all his roots and blending into another spoiled and overly privileged college hipster; a keen transition the film begins to display so sloppily that it would seem to any viewer, Christian or not, that its intended purpose isn’t cared for enough to keep stable.
Initially, Jazz carries a quirky indie vibe many viewers of the genre should be well accustomed with – the sarcastically light-hearted tone of the opening church scenes in Texas will entice the audience into wondering what exactly the film is trying to say regarding how Christians act, and whether their somewhat (at least to a secular audience) strange beliefs should be taken as a joke or not. What director Taylor is trying to express in his direction to a more keen eye may be the facade of how our main protagonist Don views the church in his own eyes, to express to us his rationale in leaving. The film unfortunately does not do this cleverly enough, given how the quirky tone shifts immediately once Don gets to Reed. Such an unclear introduction is easily forgivable, yet once the film reaches its crux, that is his initial transition into his new college, the script begins to show us a number of silly to ridiculously exaggerated practices and beliefs within this new liberal environment. Now, while something such as co-ed bathrooms are not entirely unheard of in many American universities, the film feels the need to present its student body as almost a cult, a group where nobody else is anywhere nearly as insecure or unsure as Don, putting on eye roll inducing acts by students as if they’ve been attending the school for a good decade or more, being way too accustomed to their ways of life than is believable; a young female feeling the need and apparently having the ability to urinate in a urinal instead of using a toilet as nonchalantly as washing her hands is only the beginning.
Eventually when Don meets up with a smaller niche group, is where the film’s initial tone does away with itself completely, and losing track of its message as if it never even had one. Beginning with his “pope” friend, that is, a young man who feels the need to mock Christianity by being constantly dressed in a pope’s garment whilst constantly uttering and yelling nonsensical rhetoric, Jazz simply plays out as a reality show of sorts – keeping a camera on Don just taking part in random classes, groups, and activities around campus that do little to nothing to further establish his character, show any growth or disgrowth within his Christian faith, or most importantly get us to sympathize or like him any better. Don now merely exists in a film that may as well be something completely secular, a mundane secular affair that is which will do nothing to speak to, much less involve any viewer regardless of faith. While there is no issue with Taylor’s direction, besides it displaying no form of ambitious creativity besides some out of place transition scenes of Don floating in deep space while reviewing his personal thoughts, we do get tacked on hints of Don’s former Christian loyalty, such as random signs and ads around campus showing the word ‘God’ and such. Too little too late when Taylor is desperately working with a rushed script that seems more focused on taking up running time rather than giving us even any mildly intriguing sub plots.
Eventually, and very thankfully, due to a somewhat contrived plot twist involving Don’s mother, an entire hour into the film, does the relationship between him and his crush Penny begin to escalate into a tension that should have come perhaps a good half hour earlier. It is during this second half that Don’s personal demons begin to come into full focus, leading him toward a conclusion where the film finally remembers who and what it is and its original purpose. It is at this point that the viewer is really hanging onto any remaining interest by a hair, yet is appreciative Jazz hasn’t gone to absolutely nothing. The performances here are also given their just do, considering the actors at this point have better lines and motivations to work with, we get to see them display characters we do begin to truly like. While Taylor’s original semi-sarcastic tonal structure of the film’s beginning never quite returns, one can only wonder what could have been if such direction were kept consistent. Story-wise, the film does work eventually to speak to the secular audience through Don, in a charming moment of weakness that many of those who have attended such debauchees in college could relate with. Yet to the Christian audience, it may come off as lacking the challenging questions the film initially showed such potential for. Considering again that no film on Christianity could possibly speak to everyone in an average running time, yours grinch truly’s best conclusion is that we just have to take what we can get.
Jazz, initially a novel, attempts too little to fare as well in its transition to film. And while the original story on paper perhaps displayed a better character growth in Don within his thoughts and intentions, the film utilizes almost none of this, instead making him nothing more than a cardboard cut-out, puppeteered through this university while engaging in random meaningless arguments and situations that do little to nothing to progress the film’s sense of characterization, much less involving the viewer any more than mildly. While the film does pick itself up to almost redeem its flaws later on, it will seem like far too much wasted potential of a film that either just loses track of its purpose, or is confused as to how it should present itself, figuring things out as it goes along and then luckily stumbling into a worthwhile ending that came from author Don Miller’s cleverly written lines anyway, not from any wit or smarts of the screenwriter or director of the film version. In this case, for both secular and Christian audiences, it may be best to stick with those other fluffy pieces of film evangelism, because at least those won’t bore you the way Jazz does; meanwhile the wait still continues for more Christian films that not only have the guts to challenge the status quo, but also do it with way more intelligence. I’d say 1.5 papal garments out of 4.