In a snarky promo video for Blue Like Jazz, a deadpan Donald Miller says of his film, which he and director Steve Taylor adapted from his best-selling book of the same name, “It’s not a normal Christian movie. It doesn’t have Kirk Cameron in it, and Jesus doesn’t come back.” Basically, he and Taylor have done everything in their power to convince us that Blue Like Jazz is not typical faith fare. By that, they’re trying to say it’s more than an immediately dated fixture in the church library.
The problem? It’s not. Ironically facing the same problem as nearly every other Christian movie to date, Blue Like Jazz boasts a good message—a more hip and liberal Christian message than all those films from Sherwood Pictures, of course—but a shoddy vehicle for that message. For that reason, it’s essentially another Christian movie—just a new kind of Christian movie. In fact, you could argue that, in terms of technical quality, films like Fireproof and Courageous actually better it. Sure, those films may be hokey and hackneyed, but at least they’re coherent. Blue Like Jazz fails to even be that. Uneven in story and tone, it’s a mess.
Narrative problems begin to surface when the protagonist, Donald Miller (Marshall Allman), learns that his church’s youth pastor is sleeping with his mom. Given this revelation, the young Southern Baptist immediately turns into a skeptic and shows up on the lawn of Reed College in Portland—one of the most liberal schools in America. Beyond Don’s father telling him to go there, we have no reason to accept why this devout Christian would, literally overnight, turn his back on God and go to a school he knows nothing about. In this, the whole premise proves contrived and unconvincing, and as the plot moves forward, it never transcends the dubiousness.
On Don’s trip to Reed, we also get an early look at Blue Like Jazz’s primary flaw—an incoherent tone. While driving away in his car, Don suddenly morphs into a rabbit and chases after a sexy carrot in a random animation sequence. This strange sequence epitomizes the confused look and feel of the film, as it struggles to find its identity all throughout. Is it avant-garde, a romantic comedy, serious drama, cartoon? Who knows? From beginning to end, Blue Like Jazz never finds a consistent aesthetic context. It jumps back and forth from genre to genre and style to style—all while failing to capture the reflective nature of the book.
When Don finally arrives at Reed, these issues don’t improve. Taylor captures the college campus with no visual imagination or scope and scale. He makes it look like a TV sitcom where the main characters seem to be the only students in attendance. Even worse, Taylor and Miller portray these few students as blatant stereotypes: There’s the atheist, the lesbian, the greenie, the foreigner, the Christian. And in stereotypical fashion, they all exist as mere devices that move the story onward, which explains why the lesbian (Tania Raymonde)—the third main character—drops off the face of the earth, leaving her arc unfinished.
Of course, even without these issues, Blue Like Jazz still lacks an effective lead actor to carry it through and make it work. Though he doesn’t turn in a pitiable performance—Allman’s awkwardness takes on a believable state at times—he isn’t interesting enough to make us care. Don comes across as fascinating in the book—his honest and abstract reflections feel brave and fresh—but we don’t get that in Allman. His Don doesn’t even emerge as a thinker—much less a man of words. This is a significant loss in translation between Don the self-reflective author and Don the character.
These missteps ultimately make ineffective the pertinent and powerful message within Blue Like Jazz, causing truth to fall on deaf ears. That’s unfortunate because the film really has some good things to say. It portrays the Christian faith with veracity and sincerity, taking difficult questions head on without presenting a moralized picture of human nature. It also challenges Christians to seek love and humility instead of pride and judgment—something we all need to be reminded of.
But, really, isn’t this just a redux of what we’ve already seen before? Isn’t it just a typical Christian movie in the sense that it is a good message stuck in a bad product? The only thing that’s changed is the message itself, which now looks more like Christianity lived in left field.