The most notable thing about Blue Like Jazz – which has already landed it in a special spot in film history – is that when the movie adaptation of the New York Times Best Selling List novel couldn’t find enough financing at the height of the recession, a pair of fans of the book raised $345,000 in one month on Kickstarter, which convinced additional investors to back the project. One could argue that the funds could have been used for more worthwhile causes than a movie, but the sheer idea that you could donate a few dollars to keep alive a movie adaptation of a work you enjoyed is amazing. Of course, the budget limitations of Blue Like Jazz can be seen – the few scenes that utilize CGI are laughably awful – but at a budget of $1.25 million Blue Like Jazz will likely turn a profit and then some with its passionate fanbase.
Don (Marshall Allman) is a nineteen year-old Texan who lives and breathes by his strict church upbringing. He’s about to leave to attend a Baptist college, but his deadbeat father (Eric Lange) reveals to him that he got Don a full scholarship to Reed College in Oregon, traditionally one of the most progressive colleges (or “liberal beatnik hippie communist,” depending on your political point of view). Don has no interest until a shocking revelation leaves him questioning everything he was raised to believe, so he takes off for Reed College. While there he attempts to bury his mostly unwelcome conservative Christian views and embrace the college lifestyle.
He meets a number of colorful characters, including Reed College’s own Pope (Justin Welborn), a student body authority figure who is the king of anarchy (and yes, I meant to be oxymoronic there), a sort-of Robert DeNiro in Brazil freedom fighter if he was played by a young Paul Giamatti. The Pope takes Don under his wing as he preaches the idea of God is stupidly archaic. He also meets Penny (Claire Holt), a girl who is a rebel with too many causes, and despite Don’s best efforts to act like a total jerk she keeps trying to find his good side. It ultimately comes to a head when Don must decide what he truly believes in.
There are a number of clear flaws with the movie – it’s one of those school movies that makes it seem like there are only eight people who go to the entire college, all of whom are archetypes (curiously the film’s characters have a discussion about archetypes and stereotypes in one of their “non-conformist” classes that seemed a lot like one of my very typical college courses) with a whole lot of background “extras” to paint the scenery. Director Steve Taylor (The Second Chance) doesn’t take many risks, and the movie is shot very basically, like a multi-camera sitcom. Only in movies would a girl like Penny keep trying to find the good in a guy like Don after multiple blow-offs and jerkish behavior (and actually find it, too). There are a number of significant plotlines that are left unresolved at the end of the film, and not in the “open ended” good way. And perhaps if I read the book I’d understand what’s going on with all the rabbit/carrot imagery, but since I didn’t it seems rather out of place, especially when Don turns into a rabbit when he first drives to Reed and chases after a sexualized anthromorphic carrot. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t.
But this isn’t a movie out to achieve greatness in art, its purpose is to send a message, and it’s impossible to separate the movie from its message. Thankfully the movie doesn’t pretend that the values (or in some case, lack thereof) of the Reed College students are necessarily “right” and that Don’s conservative values are “wrong” as if shades of gray don’t exist. What I was confused about is that Don seems to struggle with his Christian upbringing, but he’s never shown to be the type of hardline Christian who hates homosexuals, denies the validity of fossils, or freaks out if you mention evolution is more than a theory. He just dresses up as a Roman soldier during mass and run all-night youth retreats, which might seem silly to some but is hardly extremist behavior. The only times he seems remotely uncomfortable and disapproves of his surroundings are when he first discovers that Reed has co-ed bathrooms and when a scrawny dude in a diaper tries to dance with him, but that’s something most American males would probably be uncomfortable with, anyway, so it’s not like Don has dramatically changed his point of view. Were the filmmakers afraid to portray Don any other way?
The movie focuses on the idea that people feel uncomfortable or the need to apologize for being religious, and while I don’t deny that young people often feel like they need to defend the views they grew up with in college – I certainly remember having to stand up for views my peers didn’t agree with when I was in college – the idea that Don feels the need to “apologize” for Christians is unfortunate. The message of the film seems to be, “be yourself,” though Don seems to be the only person who has to come and understand that. Everyone else is comfortable with who they are at Reed, or at least appear to at least at first. Don couldn’t be the only one going through a faith crisis, and thankfully the film suggests otherwise in its closing minutes.
I believe Blue Like Jazz could be an inspiring film for the unfortunately few young people who hold a deep core set of beliefs or values – whether Christian or otherwise – that come to college-age and feel pressure to abandon those values for being archaic or simply uncool. That’s a strong message that people from any faith, culture, or background can learn from — don’t reject your personal values if they make you happy simply because others disprove of them. But aside from this message, it’s just not a very strong film. Perhaps my view is also colored by Damsels in Distress, which I also recently saw and covers similar themes of being genuine in college in a much more entertaining way. Either way, I might be a little older than the target audience of the film, but I can respect the message it brings to the table.
Rating: Has a compelling message, but a stronger film could have made that message much more meaningful (6/10)
Blue Like Jazz is set for a limited release on April 13.