With Blue Like Jazz, Steve Taylor takes a provocative and realistic look at Christianity
While Blue Like Jazz, the movie, aims to embody the spirit of Miller's book, Taylor, Pearson and Miller took some creative license and fictionalized a good bit of the narrative to help the story translate better in this medium. Although Blue Like Jazz ends up being an exceptional movie with moments of dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin, it starts off tediously slow. In fact, for the first five minutes or so, you'd be excused for thinking, "Oh, man, here we go, another homogenized, hamfisted, after-school worthy special."
bluelikejazzthemovie.com Don't let the cute costume fool you. This bear is a thief.
In the opening scenes, we find the movie's central character, Don Miller (Marshall Allman), finishing up work in a Laverne and Shirley-like factory (only substitute beer for wine), idly chatting up a knuckle-dragging co-worker named Jordan (Will McKinney) who attempts to get cheap laugh by placing a spittoon filled with his chew on the conveyor belt next to other cups filled with wine. Incredulous, Miller tries to intervene to no avail.
In the next scene, we see the two chopping it up at their lockers, with Miller's cretinous pal ribbing him about his mom ("She's not cheating on me, is she?") and then lobbying him to come to a party where there will be chicks, he promises, an invitation Miller declines because he has other plans. Those plans, it turns out, involve him co-chaperoning a lock-in for his church's youth group with Kenny (Jason Marsden), the youth pastor (more on him in a minute).
And that's exactly as enthralling as it sounds, as are the next few scenes in which we see the picture-perfect Miller doting on his dearly beloved single-mother (Jenny Littleton), telling her he'll take the first shower so she can sleep a little longer, and then calling her for breakfast. In between, he intercepts a message from a male caller serenading her on the answering machine in shoddy Spanish, which gives him pause and sends him peering out the window suspiciously at the gardener before deleting the message.
Next, we find young Miller visiting his freewheeling father (Eric Lange), who's drinking a beer and grilling burgers outside an Airstream trailer. In between busting Miller's stones about his Christian faith ("You want a beer? I promise I won't tell Jesus") and extolling the virtues of A Love Supreme by Coltrane, his dad informs him that he's "pulled some strings" and enrolled him at Reed College in Oregon -- noting that the average IQ of the students is two points higher than genius level, and that it's cheaper to send him there than having him kidnapped and deprogrammed. Never mind the fact that Miller is already enrolled at Trinity Baptist.
Miller's father goes on to make a jab about him choosing Trinity in an effort to please his religious mother. Miller responds to his father's barbs and disparaging remarks about his mother by pointing out that while his dad was busy dodging child support, the church was looked after Miller and his mother by buying them groceries. Miller's father clearly has a pronounced disdain for Miller's mother and her religion, and in the next few scenes, it's not hard to see why.
In what proves to be a pivotal scene -- and an awkward sequence worthy of Mike Judge circa Extract -- we find Miller in the sanctuary of his church clad, quite literally, in the full armor of god (breast plate of righteousness, helmet of salvation, etc.). He's presumably being christened as he prepares to head off to college. As he's about to leave the stage, Kenny, the detestable youth pastor (a smarmy character that resembles a cross between Kip and Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite) beckons him to linger, while he calls all the kids in the church up and then inexplicably launches into a racially-insensitive analogy involving Mexican marionettes and a cross-shaped pinata.
bluelikejazzthemovie.com Jason Marsden as Kenny, the loathsome youth pastor.
At Kenny's behest, Miller uses his "sword of the spirit" to split the pinata, sending what appears to be coffee creamers onto the floor. In an attempt to explain why the pinata didn't contain candy as expected, Kenny draws some sort of convoluted parallel to Christ dying on the cross. Somewhere amidst all of this, Kenny sings a ditty about the puppets wanting to be friends with Jesus. It's at this moment that Miller recognizes the ditty -- it's the same voice, inflection and melody as the message left on his mom's answering machine -- and he comes to the grim realization that his mom is sleeping with the youth pastor. The married youth pastor, mind you.
Incensed, Miller storms out of the church, tosses the plastic armor into the trunk of his car, and grabs a tire iron and begins trying to bludgeon Kenny's SUV. Trying is the key word here: Comically, the windows don't break, and he ends up just ripping the plastic bumper off in frustration. Just then, his mom appears and urges him to get a hold of himself. This proves to be the catalytic event that alters the course of young Miller's path and sends him on a hedonistic descent of self-discovery in the Pacific Northwest.
This is precisely the moment when the movie gets its legs. Taylor's finger prints are all over the movie from this point on. As Miller struggles to find himself at Reed College and gradually ends up abandoning his faith altogether, we're treated to a succession of absurd and memorable sequences, from a scene in which Miller's tall bike gets jacked and ultimately thrown off a bridge by somebody in a bear costume to a protest scene in a bookstore in which Miller is dressed in an astronaut's costume.
bluelikejazzthemovie.com Justin Welborn as the Pope.
Also, don't miss the scenes involving Miller scaling a billboard with Penny (Claire Holt, more on her in a minute), a fellow member of a civil disobedience club, and changing the slogan of a bottled water company (Aqua Like) from "Swallow for Bliss" to "Swallow Goat Piss." Equally as noteworthy: the Pope of Reed College (Justin Welborn), strolling through the campus on his bullshit bookmobile (a bike affixed to a shopping cart filled with offending books he's collected from the student body that he periodically sets ablaze), or, our personal favorite, Miller walking by a nativity scene with a missing baby Jesus next to a hand-scrawled sign that reads: "Put Christ back in Christmas (no questions asked)."
Just as the moments of absurdity are plentiful throughout the movie, the dialogue is dependably sharp, and at times has an almost lyrical rhythm; the pacing is deliberate and believable. As the movie edges towards its natural conclusion -- Miller's coming-to-Jesus moment, if you will -- his character is developed admirably through humorous and poignant interactions with a variety of disparate characters, including, most notably, Penny, his virtuous crush.
Over the course of the movie, he goes from first meeting the affable activist in the commons area of the campus to randily propositioning her after the robot invasion at the bookstore -- quipping "I can help you with your box" -- to having a tender heart-to-heart with her in which she confides to him that her favorite memory from her childhood is of her delusional mom (before she was institutionalized) to combing through her hair in search of hidden bugs planted by the government. There's a palpable tension between the two ("You're so good I guess you can't help making people feel like shit," Miller says, to which she later responds, "I'm going to be working in a refugee camp -- I'm sorry if that makes you feel like shit") that eventually leads to Miller's spiritual awakening.
Elsewhere, the best exchanges happen between Miller and the Pope, who essentially causes Miller to examine and question his faith. In one scene, the Pope attempts to pour cold water on Miller's infatuation with Penny, pointing out that his previous dorm-mate was a "Rhodes scholar, tall biker, looked like Jeff Buckley...If he couldn't bag that no one can." A bit later, as the two hatch a plan to pull a prank at a nearby church that involves draping a super-sized condom over the steeple with an accompanying sign that reads, "Don't Let These People Reproduce," the Pope notes that behind every steeple is a sleeper cell. "They smile, they shake your hand, and then you're drinking the Kool-Aid."
Alas, there are some sections that seem superfluous, with incidental characters who neither seem to advance the storyline nor enhance character development, including Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), Miller's acid-tongued lesbian friend, who cries on his shoulder when she learns that her crush is actually straight, and the aforementioned Jordan, his friend from the factory, who drops in unexpectedly on Miller on Christmas Eve.
In a semi-convoluted twist, Jordan explains that he was fired from the factory when his prank was unearthed, and a nun in Canada unwittingly ingested his juicy surprise and ended up getting sick. Somehow, Jordan evidently ended up speaking with her and comes to the conclusion that he shouldn't "shit where he eats." The scene ends with Miller declining to accompany him to mass to give "Jesus a holler," as he puts it, followed by Jordan eloquently informing him that he's heading up Canada to visit the nun and "help the retards."
Those sequences, while slightly amusing, are the main missteps. Fortunately, they don't screw with the pacing, and before the film's dramatic conclusion -- which we won't spoil for you here -- there are a number of other memorable scenes to make up for the brief digressions, such as when Miller's mom phones with news that she's pregnant with the youth pastor's kid and a scene in which Miller ends up trapped in a port-a-potty after a night of indulging at the college's annual "Ren Faire," a night of pure hedonism that is evidently based on actual experiences at Reed.
All in all, Taylor and company have successfully delivered a layered dramady that's worth seeing. While some of the characters at times border on becoming caricatures, overall the film is well-acted and a notable sense of humanity is weaved through the story. And the soundtrack, which features songs from Menomena and Nashville-by-way-Denver transplant Katie Herzig, among others, is also pretty swell. The underlying message -- if there is one -- seems to summed up with what Penny says to Miller when she attempts to provide him with some perspective on his estranged relationship with his mother: "People are human. People are flawed. We all have our crap."
"I think this film is incredibly accurate," said Donald Miller during the Q&A. "We will get criticized for...everything I do I get criticized for criticizing the church. We have one shady Christian character in the whole movie, Kenny. Everybody else is totally understandable and redemptive. Even the church that Penny goes to is completely redemptive, really a beautiful place. The pastor reaches into the port-a-potty.
"But we will still get criticized for not saying that Christians are perfect," he continued. "And I just think, 'You've got your -- pardon, me -- you've got your head up your ass. Because you're not, and I'm not. Like if you'd like to meet a Christian...if you haven't met a Christian who's a hypocrite, let's hang out afterward, because I am one, and you can meet me. And then you can never say we're all perfect again, 'cause I'll show you all kinds of things."
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