Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/31/08 15:00:00

"Filth And Wisdom"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Because it combines an outlandish sense of cheerfully crude and ribald humor with a sweet and sensitive side, I am certain that many critics will describe “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” the latest effort from indie filmmaking icon Kevin Smith, as a blatant effort to cash in on the box-office success of the films of Judd Apatow, the man behind such hits as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” That might make sense except for the fact that long before Apatow became America’s reigning king of comedy cinema, Smith was making films like “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” that effortlessly combines shock humor, smarts and sentiment and while the results may not have been as slickly packaged as Apatow’s efforts, his films (with the exception of the blatant joke-a-thon “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back”) have always struck me as being both funnier, savvier and more on-the-nose in the ways that they have dealt with the hopes, fears and longings of Gen-Xers as they have made the messy transition from their arrested adolescences into something resembling adulthood. (That and the fact that Smith’s film rarely wear out their welcome while Apatow tends to let his run on at least 20 minutes too long for their own good.) Therefore, while “Zach and Miri” may look like an Apatow film on the surface (if for no other reason than the fact that it features several actors who have appeared in his work), it is really a prime example of the kind of film that Smith has been consistently delivering for nearly 15 years now--a hilarious and strangely heartwarming work that consists of equal parts smuttiness and sweetness with the addition of a few bits that pretty much go beyond even the admittedly lax bounds of this column in terms of describing them.

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play Zack and Miri, a pair of lifelong platonic friends who are now living in near-squalor in a run-down Pittsburgh suburb while eking out meager livings at anonymous McJobs. As the film opens, the two are getting ready to go to their high school reunion, which Miri sees as an opportunity to finally make a play for former class heartthrob Bobby Long (Brandon Routh in his first big post-“Superman Returns” role) and Zach sees as an opportunity to drink and hit on anyone who seems desperate enough to indulge in a quickie with him. While Zach succeeds at his moderate quests, Miri winds up striking out when she discovers that Bobby is not only playing for the other team but that he is attending the reunion with his boyfriend (Justin Long), an extremely loquacious gay porn star. The next day--Thanksgiving, no less--Zack and Miri’s living situation moves from near to total squalor as their heat, power and water are simultaneously shut off and the amount of back rent they owe all but ensures that they will be out on the street before too long. Drowning their sorrows in the cheapest beer imaginable, Miri remarks that these are exactly the circumstances that people find themselves in before beginning to have sex for money and Zach has a brilliant idea--they will make their own porno film and just the amount of likely sales from curious former classmates alone will be enough to get them out of their predicament. This is not as simple as it sounds because, as was pointed out earlier, the two have never slept together but they convince themselves that they can have sex on camera with each other without having it mess up their friendship.

Duly inspired, Zack puts together a script that plays off of a better-known film (and if you know your Kevin Smith movies, you can probably guess what it is ) and ensures that Miri won’t be having sex on camera with anyone else but him. The two gather a cast and crew consisting of Delaney (Craig Robinson), a coffee-shop cohort of Zack’s whose slight influx of cash earns him the titles of producer and, more importantly, casting director,; Deacon (Jeff Anderson), who gets the coveted job of cinematographer based on his sideline gig filming high school basketball games; the seemingly innocent performer Barry (Ricky Mabe), the seemingly less innocent performer Lester (longtime Askewniverse mainstay Jason Mewes) with a talent for always being ready to perform; the sweet-natured stripper Stacey (real-life porn star Katie Morgan) and Bubbles (real-life porn legend Traci Lords), who, let us say, earns her nickname. Somehow, this motley group manages to come together and even after the initial concept for the film falls through, the project finally gets off the ground. More importantly, Zack finally feels truly motivated for what may be the first time of his life--like so many aspiring filmmakers before him, he is instantly hooked on the magic of moviemaking even in its basest variation. The only real hiccup comes, inevitably, when it is time for Zach and Miri to shoot their scene--by porno standards, it is pretty much a disaster but on a personal level, this moment arouses unexpected feelings and has consequences that threaten not just their film but their entire relationship.

Like most of Smith’s previous films, the basic description of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” not to mention that title, makes it sound like nothing more than a straightforward dirty-minded comedy and in many ways, it is--it scores pretty high on the raunch meter even before the porn stuff kicks in and the dialogue contains more fucks than are actually seen in most porno films. And yet, if that was all that the film had going for it, this would just be another disposable piece of crap along the lines of the abomination known as “Sex Drive,” albeit with better jokes. What separates Smith from the others is that his films are more than that and “Zach and Miri” is a perfect example of how he is able to make a film that looks like a one-note joke and transforms it into something funnier, deeper and more complex. For starters, Smith’s trademark mile-a-minute and pop-culture-saturated dialogue works not because it is smart and funny (though it is in both cases) but because it captures the rapid-fire vocal patterns of a generation that has been trained and raised in such a way that it is easier for them to go on at length about “Star Wars” minutiae than it is for them to speak about what they are feeling in their hearts. He knows how to create plausible male-female relationships, platonic and romantic alike, and when it comes time to have his characters separate when things go bad, he gives them equally plausible reasons for the split instead of just creating some silly fight to break them apart for no other reason than to get them back together again. Even better, the film works on other levels beyond that of the central story. Although it may not have been fully intended as such, it plays as a fairly amusing indictment of the current economic climate and the lengths that ordinary people are forced to go to these days just to keep their heads above water. Additionally, it also plays as a piece of wistful autobiography on Smith’s part in regards to the creation of his own first film, “Clerks.”

And while some of Smith’s critics have lambasted him in the past for the ways in which they feel that he has steadfastly refused to develop as a filmmaker over the last 15 years (usually referring to his fairly basic visual style, which actually fits perfectly with the type of film that he specializes in, and his alleged refusal to expand his storytelling horizons, which proves that they just aren’t paying attention), “Zack and Miri” does demonstrate his growth in regards to working with actors. In pretty much all of his previous films over the years, he has worked with a core group of actors but with this film, he is essentially working with an entirely new group of people and yet, the performances are so charming and relaxed that you would think that they had been part of his ensemble of players for years. Rogen demonstrates the same gruff, goofy charm mixed with genuine streaks of sensitivity that he did on the small screen in “Freaks and Geeks” and on the big screen in “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.” Of course, in those films, there were some complaints that his romantic pairings weren’t very believable but Elizabeth Banks, who has become one of the most valuable scene-stealers of recent years, is more than his equal--she can sling Smith’s dialogue with enough conviction to come across as one of the guys and when she allows herself to show a more vulnerable side, she does it in a way that will make practically everyone in the audience immediately fall in love with her. As for the supporting characters, Craig Robinson contributes some of the funniest moments as the eternally hen-pecked producer, Jeff Anderson contributes some of his trademark snark as the cinematographer, Traci Lords and Katie Morgan contribute a certain amount of verisimilitude (yeah, you heard me) and knowing self-parody as the porn starlets and Jason Mewes contributes. . .well, I will leave it to you to discover what he contributes except to say that when you see it, you probably won’t forget it, no matter how hard you try.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” isn’t without its occasional missteps--the narrative sags a little bit in the middle, a faux-infomercial that closes the film goes on too long without generating any real laughs and the big gross-out moment (you’ll know it when you see it) is so beyond the pale and so unnecessary (especially since it plays as the coda to one of the most important scenes) that it not only nauseates you, it actually bums you out for the next few minutes. And yet, while this may not top “Chasing Amy” as Smith’s cinematic high-water mark, it is the most solidly constructed and emotionally mature thing that he has done since that film and it is funny as hell to boot. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it may be the most sophisticated adult-oriented romantic comedy of the season,. While it may not hit the box-office heights of Judd Apatow’s recent films, I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be the one to truly stand the test of time.

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