Based on the novel by Donald Miller, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Blue Like Jazz is about a pious teenager named Don, who abandons his Christian upbringing upon the discovery that his mother is having an affair with a married man in their church. Afterwards, Don decides against going to a writing program at a Christian college to go to a much more secular campus in the pacific northwest.
The best way I can summarize Blue Like Jazz is “insulting.” On the one hand, it is a Christian film, and thus atheists are not portrayed in the most flattering way. It’s one thing to disagree with the religious views of another, but the atheists in this film feel compelled to make Christians feel inferior and crazy. Early in the film, one character advises Don to keep his Christian upbringing to himself, citing an incident where her former roommate was driven off campus for her beliefs. The film also goes out of its way to clarify that it’s only Christians that face this level of scrutiny, as there are several less orthodox religious groups on campus who apparently thrive just fine on this anti-theist campus.
Now, if the film had just trashed atheists for two hours, that would be almost expected from a Christian themed film, but I honestly feel this movie would be insulting to Christians too. First of all, Don abandons 19 years of faith very quickly, and as soon as he gets to college he immediately begins drinking excessively and changing his personality to pursue a girl named Penny (Claire Holt). I’m told this sudden change in faith is believable, so I’m prepared to let it go, but I think the worst part is how it tries to serve as a cautionary tale for Christians who turn away from their faith. Things continue to go wrong in Don’s life as long as he refuses to make up with his mother, and it starts to feel like divine retribution. Or propaganda.
Despite that, the film is surprisingly not preachy. I think it tries too hard to be quirky and original, but at least you’re not being beaten over the head with the central moral. Some of this quirkiness works very well. The irony of one of the students being appointed “pope” each year and being responsible for organizing protests and hearing “confession” is really effective. However, a lot of these moments just feel inorganic and forced. For example, as Don is deciding which campus to go to, he turns into a cartoon rabbit for some reason and chases a sexy, moped riding carrot to Portland.
Overall, there are a lot of little elements to this film that work really well, but it doesn’t feel worth it to wade through all of the less interesting stuff the film has to offer.
Special Features on the DVD include audio commentary with Donald Miller and Steve Taylor, Deleted scenes and several behind the scenes featurettes including one about making Blue Like Jazz, one on the cast, one on the animator, and one on the music.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate on August 7