According to the opening narration of Blue Like Jazz, the most important elements of a story are setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. By that standard, the film is an utter disaster. Insipid caricatures whose actions never coalesce into meaningful conflict populate the screen. The meandering story remembers plot points only when they are convenient, so its climax lacks impact, let alone coherence. A murky middle section means there is no hope of a satisfying conclusion. In terms of setting, at the very least, Blue Like Jazz realizes two disparate communities with shallow semi-competence: an evangelical Texas church and Portland’s ultra-liberal Reed College.
Marshall Allman stars as Don, an earnest young man who plans to attend a Baptist college in Texas (he wants to stay near his mother). Unbeknownst to him, his burnt-out father has enrolled him at Reed with the hope that its atmosphere will expand his mind. Don rejects the offer, at least until he discovers his mother has been fucking his youth pastor behind his back. Out of anger and spite, Don leaves Texas for Oregon and clumsily reinvents himself once he arrives. Abandoning any reference to his past, he adopts the role of an affable corporate prankster.
Blue Like Jazz is an adaptation of an essay collection by Donald Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Pearson and director Steve Taylor. It was a good idea for them to drop the book’s subtitle, “Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” since the film lacks any serious substance or insight. Their vision of Reed is like a bad Portlandia sketch, one where students haphazardly go through the motions of college rebellion. While the entire cast, including Allman, admirably struggles to give their characters depth, there is little they can accomplish when they’re only given broad shtick.
In an indicative sequence, Don and his new friends dress as robots and infiltrate a chain book store, espousing anti-corporate slogans. Given Portland’s penchant for weirdness, I doubt their behavior would scandalize anyone, yet I was willing to suspend my disbelief since the scene serves as early character development. But the script, littered with basic writing problems, never moves beyond the hollow rhetoric of the book store prank. Later, a professor asks Don’s class to differentiate a stereotype from an archetype. From their discussion, it’s clear that neither the students nor instructor understand what the words mean. When Don attends a debate between two scholars over the existence of God, their clumsy arguments make little sense. At every point where Blue Like Jazz requires a coherent thought, Taylor and his screenwriters undermine their credibility; no one at Reed College or in Portland in general should sound this stupid.
Aside from adapting Miller’s book, Taylor’s other ambition is to push Christian filmmaking into the mainstream. He adds visual flourishes like CGI animation and twee title cards, but they’re amateurishly rendered and lack the creativity of other coming-of-age films like 500 Days of Summer and Better Off Dead. Taylor also shies away from any faith-based judgment, instead focusing on Don’s collegiate experimentation. There is progress, I guess, when a Christian film depicts underage drinking and gay characters in a tolerant light. Still, a better film would not merely congratulate itself for its taboo content, but strive to understand its characters with empathy.
Blue Like Jazz is a bad movie for most of its running time, but in its final scene, it veers from bad to offensive and downright insulting. Don and an older friend share a heart-to-heart after an all-night party. Don coaxes his friend to admit he was sexually assaulted by a priest so he can apologize on behalf of Christendom. Their awkward dialogue should be cathartic, but instead Don exploits his friend’s trauma to justify his own religion. Don also has a confession of his own: even though he’s grown distant from the “Christian subculture” of his youth, he says, he cannot abandon faith because the spirit of God never left him. Aside from the fact that Don’s faith couldn’t be more mainstream, the confession is laughable since Taylor and his screenwriters never bother to introduce any sense of faith or spirituality. In the world of Blue Like Jazz, Christianity is nothing more than a label, so Don’s journey is just like any other conservative who attends a liberal arts college. PCU, which you should probably revisit anyway, is far more accurate and emotionally honest.