Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

BLUE LIKE JAZZ          B-                
USA  (106 mi)  2012  d:  Steve Taylor             Official site

Do you have any idea what your hateful, bullying tribe has been up to? Cause around here, you represent a whole new category of despicable. So, if you plan on ever making friends, or sharing a bowl, or seeing a human vagina without a credit card, get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there.
—Lauryn (Tania Raymonde)

Easily the best thing about this film is the title, which immediately offers a multitude of suggestible images inside each individual’s head, which, as it turns out, has little or nothing to do with the movie, though it attempts to link jazz improvisation to the unforeseen forks in the road of life’s journey, though that’s at best a feeble effort.  Instead this is an occasionally smart, often funny and bitingly satiric comedy on the fickle nature of youthful idealism, where God and religion often get tossed into the mix of corporate evil and religious persecution, where it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.  While this film is occasionally hilarious, often similar to the dizzying kaleidoscopic blur that is Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011), though not nearly as consistently entertaining, this on the other hand moves to the other coast and reflects West coast elitism.  Loosely adapted by the director, cinematographer Ben Pearson, and author Donald Miller from his autobiographical book Blue Like Jazz:  Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, a collection of personal essays, this much more fictionalized journey starts out in Texas with a glimpse of Southern fundamental Baptism through the conservative eyes of a true believer, Don (Marshall Allman), who is the assistant youth pastor.  An only child living with his devout single mom (Jenny Littleton), the two are like peas in a pod, while off in the distance somewhere is the more out-of-sorts divorced and atheist father (Eric Lange), known as the Hobo, looking a bit like Allen Ginsberg, living inside a trailer in the woods somewhere, a free thinker who also believes in free sex and jazz, compiling an extensive John Coltrane record collection, whose claim to fame is his philosophy that jazz is like life “because it doesn’t resolve.”  Using his contacts, knowing his son is bright, he gets him into the prestigious Reed College in Portland, Oregon, affectionately known by locals as Weed College, labeled “the most godless campus in America” where the average IQ is 138, supposedly two points higher than genius level, a bastion of hippies, art students, and environmental junkies, the kinds of kids that comprise the hard core leftist agenda, but with rich parents who can afford their transition into progressive activism.  When Don realizes his mother is concealing an affair with the already married youth pastor, he’s off to what is arguably the most liberal college in the United States. 

Initially, this fish-out-of-water transition is hilarious, as the portrait of Reed feels like something right out of Mad magazine, as the attention to detail is uniquely accurate while seemingly greatly exaggerated, but this is a college campus that prides itself on free expression, where no cause goes unnoticed, and everyone seems to already have a fairly well developed, often capricious, point of view.  Immediately Don is singled out as the Texas Baptist boy, a lone voice on campus, where he soon finds that blending into the majority views is easier, often making self-effacing jokes about Christianity, where the suppressed anger of his mother’s morally hypocritical actions remain foremost in his mind.  When he starts submerging his personality in a self-imposed purgatory of alcohol abuse, the film immediately loses its edge, as he’s obviously a sheep gone astray, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way back to the flock again.  The film then goes on two parallel tracks, one delightfully successful, a developing romance with a cute blond named Penny (Claire Holt), who’s in one of his classes and happens to be a similarly God-fearing Christian who is conscious guided, somewhat along the lines of Sally Struthers on the Christian TV Network, where Struthers is always seen soliciting religious contributions for starving orphans around the world, while the other is a walking disaster, the irreverent and obnoxious actions of the Pope (Justin Welborn), a student running around in a Pope’s garments whose sole mission appears to be to prevent students from reading church-based literature, freeing them from the regressive force-fed chains of mental bondage, an anarchistic figure who takes Don under his wing, almost always in a perpetual state of inebriation.  Despite her supposed naiveté, Penny may be the best thing in the picture, as she’s the only one, apparently, standing up for and acting upon her beliefs, while everyone else seems to be pushing a constantly shifting personal agenda of some kind, which may as well be a new theme of the week. 

Adding to the religious blasphemy is Don’s first friend he meets on campus, a lesbian named Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), whose decisively opinionated conversation he overhears in a unisex restroom, but the two become fast friends and confessional soulmates, where Lauryn is often hurt by the unpredictable twists and turns of love, while Don is turning into a one-man wrecking ball, where he’s basically against whatever the prevailing point of view may be, deeply immersed in a sort of self-protected bubble of immunity where he refuses to allow himself to get hurt simply by not believing in anything.  Penny has a hard time with this side of himself, as he’s the one suddenly turning a blind eye to his own hypocrisy by pretending not to care about anything, including his inability to forgive his Commandment breaking mother.  Despite the stereotype of Christian outreach, at least Penny’s view of religion doesn’t alter or change her perspective, nor does she force her views on others, like the everpresent overbearing Pope who’s simply a pompous ass, instead she’s a persistent force for good.  But despite high hopes from the smart and freshly atypical opening, the film bogs down at the end in a kind of Pope-led Bacchanalia ceremony of pagan worship, which is a climaxing set piece of godless sin, initially a mockery of Catholicism and rigid thinking before it turns out to be an unseen healing force for Don, just as naïve as Penny, a novice in the world around him, where the college journey turns out to be his road to enlightenment.  This gentle, coming-of-age film gets the existential tone of transition correct from a kid living at home with his mother, basically brainwashed by the church, suddenly free to explore other trains of thought, which is of course liberating, even if what you discover isn’t far from where you started.  The progressive world of college is seen as a neverending series of choices, where his previous assurance and cliché’d understanding of God in his life turns into a search for meaning and truth, where college is fertile grounds for exploration.  This is an oddly satiric exposé of secular extremism that rejects the hypocrisy and turns into a much healthier and well-rounded understanding of religion. 

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