“It wasn’t what I was expecting” is perhaps the cheapest piece of criticism that can be lobbed at a work of art, but in the case of, oh, a fact-based melodrama that pulls from both a) real life and b) the memoir written about it, some basic expectations are inevitable. Denzel Washington’s “A Journal for Jordan” certainly has a straightforward enough premise — per its own synopsis, it’s “based on the true story of First Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan) a soldier deployed to Iraq who begins to keep a journal of love and advice for his infant son” — but the end result is a baffling feature that so desperately wants to be an entirely different film that audiences might worry they’ve stepped into the wrong theater. No, it’s not what you’re expecting, and what it is isn’t very good, either.
Based (apparently?) on Dana Canedy’s memoir, Washington’s film kicks off with a heartbroken and recently widowed Dana (Chanté Adams) writing a heartfelt letter to her young son. The implication is as clear as anything in Virgil Williams’ fumbling script: She’s penning said letter to give to the cute kiddo along with the titular journal, all in a bid to explain the love story from which he sprang. Uh, right? And yet the film fails to adhere to this very basic storytelling conceit, as Williams’ script soon opts to unpack a fraught romance that few people would feel comfortable sharing with their offspring. So, what’s the letter? Where’s the journal? And who exactly would opt to spend precious time with their child detailing the time Mommy and Daddy did it with the drapes open?
Instead of getting an inspirational story of a father and his love for his son, “A Journal for Jordan” delivers about 90 minutes of flat romantic dramedy, all focused on two people who are criminally ill-suited for each other (both in terms of the casting — Jordan and Adams are very talented, but these two do not have chemistry at all — and the characters themselves). Dana is a career journalist (the real Canedy is a former NYT editor and the current administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University), Charles is a by-the-book soldier reeling from a recent divorce. When the pair meet at Dana’s parents’ house — Charles is a friend of the family, Dana’s dad was his sergeant — we’re meant to believe that nothing can pull these two apart, even if nearly every minute of their eventual romance is tinged with their fundamental incompatibility.
And that’s what we get for the majority of the film’s running time: a fraught love story between two people who probably shouldn’t have to work so hard to just be together. That we know it “works out” insofar as they eventually have a cute kid together doesn’t help, and neither does the lingering knowledge that something bad is going to happen (at some point?) and pull them apart forever. Washington shot the film in and around New York City last spring, and while Dana and Charles are often stuck inside her apartment, moments in which they venture out and around the city help open up their love story. And yet, if the best thing you can say about a film so stuck on its romance that “it was nice when they went to Central Park,” perhaps other avenues need to be explored, ASAP.
Important characters and subplots are picked up and dropped at random — including, but not limited to, Dana’s parents, Dana’s siblings, Dana’s job, Charles’ first child, Charles’ career aspirations — and only circled back to when there needs to be some outside drama. The film attempts to mine a compelling tension between Charles’ sense of duty and his love for his men and his relationship with Dana, but it’s never fully fleshed out.
Instead, like many other concepts that crop up in the film’s middling middle act, it’s only deployed when still more drama is needed. And that drama often lets down the film’s few strengths, like the complex character of Dana, rendered silly and screechy with awkward regularity. (For a seasoned journalist, you’d think Dana would understand that a soldier can’t just go on vacation from a literal war to see the birth of his kid, but God forbid “A Journal for Jordan” doesn’t include such a scene to pump up the pain.)
Criss-crossing timelines and flashbacks don’t help much; good luck trying to track the path of the actual journal. Hell, good luck trying to track the path of the letter, because by the time we meet tween Jordan (a very sweet Jalon Christian, given far too little to do), the kid has zero idea about his dad, which only leads to a series of hammy and weird expositional moments that struggle to lend shape to the film’s final act. Maybe give him the journal? Just an idea!
Fortunately, Dana does eventually fork it over, along with the heartbreaking story of their little family, and the film’s final act is more in line with the story that’s trying to be told here — and certainly the one the book itself inspired. And while that can be a bit schmaltzy and melodramatic, at least it packs a message and tone more befitting the source material. What did Charles want to teach his son? It only takes about 90 minutes to get a taste — by then, there’s not much here to write home about.
Sony will release “A Journal for Jordan” in theaters on Friday, December 24.