Judge Bill Gibron wishes this faith-based novelty had been better...from a cinematic standpoint.
God goes grunge?
All films have certain pitfalls they must overcome: budget, amateur acting, sour subject matter, favored/flawed source. Blue Like Jazz must contend with all four…and fails…which is unfortunate. Based on the popular Christ-lit book by Donald Miller, the tome's subtitle "Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality" explains much of what's going on here. Unlike, say, your standard coming-of-age book, the collection of personal essays focuses on finding a way to make the mandates of organized religion fit within a framework that no longer values their—well, values. Miller was trying to find faith in a so-called "Godless" world, ending up at the uber-liberal Reed College in Portland. There, he did what all naive naysayers do: he explored and absorbed. Then, he ended up doing what realistic interpreters of the Good Book do—imply what you need, ignore what is nonsense, argue over what is necessary. The final work was like a series of self-help pronouncements, almost all dealing with a return to true "faith." It gave fundamentalists fits by suggesting that one could approach the subject of belief without having to give in to the tired, trademarked tenets of the Church. For shame!
It's a compelling idea, handled in a half-baked manner by this Kickstarter funded production. The essays have been streamlined into a story centering around Miller (Marshall Allman, True Blood) who finds his mother's (Jenny Littleton, Deadline) self-righteous, Southern Baptist hypocrisy a bit too much to contend with. With his jazz-loving absentee father's (Eric Lange, Secretariat) blessing, he rejects the local Bible college he planned to attend for a trip out to Portland, and the notorious Reed (referred to by the locals as "Weed," for obvious reasons). There, he meets up with the typical temptations: the spirited activist (Claire Holt, The Vampire Diaries), the ardent lesbian (Tania Raymonde, Lost), the devotee comic atheist (Justin Wellborn, The Final Destination), etc. Warned that his value system is not appreciated on campus, our hero hides is beliefs and starts "experimenting" with different ideals. In the end, however, he soon realizes how important his core convictions really are.
Religion and movies typically don't go well together. Writers and directors either kowtow to Christianity, or mock it—or any other dogma—mercilessly. Tyler Perry can find the proper balance because he works within an established demographic that sees faith as anything but foolish. On the other hand, lapsed Catholic Kevin Smith never misses an opportunity to take potshots at what he sees as the duplicity of organized belief. For him, everything from pedophilic priests to the contradictory nature of the Gospels make for ripe ridicule fodder. Blue Like Jazz falls somewhere square in the middle, making fun of the fallacy some among the faithful express (as when Don's Mom philanders with the married youth pastor) while taking down those who've substituted something else (drugs, gender, orientation, causes, personal pain) as their new "messiah." The problem, however, arrives in the first sentence of this review. In order to explore this intriguing concept, we have to endure financial restraints (the Portland-set story was not filmed there), hit and miss performances, a weird dismissal of the subject matter, and a source (a series of essays, again) that makes for a difficult translation.
In the hands of Christian rocker turned director Steve Taylor, we wind up with a well intentioned muddle. We never really back Don's spiritual quest, we giggle as he stares wide-eyed at unisex bathrooms and casual condom distribution, and we wince in anticipation of the ultimate Jesus beatdown. Luckily, it never comes, and this is one of Blue Like Jazz's best attributes. It doesn't smash you over the head with its faith and at the same time, gives non-believers an equally wide berth. There's no thumbs up or thumbs down, no "God is great" or "God is dead" didacticism. Instead, everything is internalized and slowly released, lending an unique quality to what is, ultimately, a dull narrative. Yes, the reason Blue Like Jazz stumbles is because its movie mechanics can't keep up with the interesting ideas present. It's clearly the result of trying to take monologues and turning them into conversation. The dialogue between yourself and your beliefs will always be more compelling than a bunch of one-note archetypes yakking. While it has its heart in the right place, Blue Like Jazz can't overcome some cinematic basics.
As for the Blu-ray release, there are good and bad points abounding. The 1.78:1/1080p image is good, but not great. It suffers from softness and a lack of high-end technical production values. Things should pop. Instead, they look like an above-average TV movie: flat and featureless. The sound situation is much better. The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is clear and crisp, combining easy to understand dialogue with nicely balance ambience. The score isn't intrusive and there are some nice song selections. Perhaps the biggest bonus is the wealth of added content. There are five featurettes (focusing on everything from the music to the Kickstarter campaign), a commentary track with Miller and Taylor, and a making-of. We also get deleted scenes (some are quite interesting) and a photo gallery. Toss in a trailer and you have an excellent Blu-ray package—at least from an extras standpoint.
Blue Like Jazz acts like an expert tightrope walker, balancing its sense of belief with the needs of the non-religious audience. Too bad the standards of cinema belie its righteous intentions.
Guilty, but just barely. Could have been a faith-based game changer, but elements outside religion reduce it to a noble failure.
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