'Blue Like Jazz' review: For a change, a two-way conversation about religion

RedEye movie critic, music editor

*** (out of four)

In the recent pro-life drama “October Baby,” the abortion debate poses no debate at all. The planet's most divisive issue contains one perspective, and the movie isn't a movie so much as a “Shame on you” wag of the finger to anyone who feels differently.

Fortunately, the religious examination in “Blue Like Jazz” mostly exists as a discussion, not a sermon. The film explores a conflicted belief system through the epitome of a person seeking self-discovery and extended conversation: a college student. Back home at a junior college in Texas, Don (Marshall Allman) assists his married youth pastor, Kenny (Jason Marsden), until discovering that Kenny may have some unsanctioned business on the side with Don’s mom (Jenny Littleton). So Don takes off for the liberalpalooza of Reed College in Portland, where the 19-year-old Southern Baptist represents quite the Jesus fish out of water in this sea of lesbians and free condom distribution. Goodbye, mass; hello, keg stands.

Co-written by Donald Miller from his memoir, “Blue Like Jazz” sometimes feels like the spiritual person’s “Rushmore,” including an inspiring, early-movie speech challenging scholastic principles and an array of funny clubs. (Reed has canceled its flag football team but offers both fire juggling and Malaysian cocktail tennis.) The movie remains looser than expected—aware of the hypocrisy and bigotry pervasive in modern religion as Don insists, “Not all Christians are like that” as he turns away from what he once greatly valued.

Its musical metaphors contain barely college-level thinking and sub-high school perceptions of jazz, and eventually “Jazz” halts its discussion section and leaves personal beliefs to a certain “It is what it is” compromise. That weakens the rest of a story that’s safe in behavior (note Don’s chaste pursuit of a classmate, before he discovers her devout faith) but not in thought, with interest in balancing teaching with personal interpretation. A priest rescuing Don from a tipped-over port-a-potty seems a bit less impartial.

Unlike most films so directly about religious beliefs, “Jazz” doesn’t forget to be entertaining or ask questions, rather than walloping an already converted audience with a hammer of propaganda.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais


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