Get ready for a new cinematic trope: Boy loses religion. Boy goes to weirdo college, sleeps beside a lesbian, and starts drinking beer. Boy regains religion after sliding a huge condom over a church steeple and being elected the campus Pope. Boy begins a relationship with a religious girl who enjoys traipsing among the impoverished in India.
God. No God. Ale. Lesbian. Condom. God. Gets girl.
Imagine Animal House starring Rick Santorum. No, make that Mitt Romney. No, that's unfair. How about Donny Osmond?
Based on what I've been told is an autobiographical, 1.5 million-copy bestseller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller, the book has been adapted for the screen with lots of love -- and less skill -- by Miller, Ben Pearson, and director Steve Taylor.
What's significant here is that much of the budget for the film was raised by the book's fans on Kickstarter.com. That's over $340,000. Why the enthusiasm?
Take Miller's intro to his spiritual journey that takes him from Texas to Oregon:
"I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Baghdad Theatre one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes.
"After that I liked jazz music.
"Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.
"I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened."
Move on to the opening paragraph:
"I once listened to an Indian on television say that God was in the wind and the water, and I wondered at how beautiful that was because it meant you could swim in Him or have Him brush your face in a breeze. I am early in my story, but I believe I will stretch out into eternity, and in heaven I will reflect upon these early days, these days when it seemed God was down a dirt road, walking toward me. Years ago He was a swinging speck in the distance; now He is close enough I can hear His singing. Soon I will see the lines on His face."
It's certainly not Hermann Hesse. Yet if you're young and questioning your faith --and if you're at that stage of your life where the God of your parents seems to be an ill fit for your quotidian experiences -- and if the folks who have been your spiritual guides seem to be a tinge hypocritical the more you behold them, this tome certainly seems like it might supply an answer or two. Yet, the hero of the text is age 32. His counterpart in the film is a callow 19.
As Georgie Shaw once noted: "Youth, which is forgiven everything, forgives itself nothing: age, which forgives itself everything, is forgiven nothing."
So would we, could we, be sympathetic to an older man being initiated into the Dionysian campus pleasures of youth after three decades on Planet Earth? Well, The 40 Year Old Virgin was quite a success. But why take a chance and also forsake the youth market?
Well, while churchgoers might embrace this enterprise and even declare it borderline daring, the end result is a mixed bag as an entertainment for the rest of us. Certain scenes are plodding, going on far too long. The cast ranges from charismatic (especially Tania Raymonde as the same-sex aficionado) to the bland. The tone varies from the naturalistic to bad sitcom. And there is no visual style.
Yet there are moments of wit.
Early on, when the insulated, pious "Baptist boy" hooks up with his divorced dad who lives in a trailer, pa asks: "Do you want a beer? I won't tell Jesus."
Then when Miller arrives at the radical Reed College, which he enrolled in after discovering his mom is having an affair with a church leader, he comes across car stickers such as "Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers." Or when the young man tries to sign up for a school club, he's asked whether he's interested in "Jews for Jihad."
Lost in a "sea of individuality," Miller evolves, devolves, and is born again. It's a painless, not highly memorable journey that is tailor-made for Young Christian discussion groups -- and that is not bad in itself. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).