Synecdoche, New York(11/12/2008)

            Charlie Kaufman accomplished a number of seemingly impossible achievements when he wrote the movie Being John Malkovich in 1999.  Firstly, he managed to make a totally unconventional and weird movie into a commercial success.  Secondly, he managed to make a name for himself among film enthusiasts as a screenwriter.  Since then, he’s also written the scripts for such weird (and such successful) films as Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Now he’s made his debut as a director with Synecdoche, New York a film that’s even more mind-bending than his previous work.

            The film follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a middle aged director of avant-garde theater.  His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is a painter and he has a daughter named Olive.  After he’s hit in the head during a pluming accident, Caden finds himself dwelling on his health.  Shortly thereafter he unexpectedly receives a MacArthur genius grant and decides to make a play that would be the panicle of honesty, to do this he builds an elaborate set in of an entire city in a football stadium and populates it with actors who are ordered to act like other people living mundane lives.  This play is in preparation for a good fifty years; meanwhile Caden must deal with his wife leaving him, his estrangement from his daughter, and the other various women who enter his life.

             To call this movie challenging would be an understatement.  Kaufman’s previous films were complicated and met, but to a certain extent they were high concept affairs.  Being John Malkovich was about people being able to enter the mind of the titular actor, Adaptation was about a writer writing a script about writing that same script, and Eternal Sunshine was about a man’s journey through his own mind while people erase the memories of his ex.  Those are all tricky concepts to wrap your head around, but once you “get” the concept, the rest of the movie will probably make sense to you.  Synecdoche, New York isn’t rooted in a concrete gimmick like that, and as such it not going to be as accessible. 

            Synecdoche, New York in many ways seems to have more similarities to Kaufman’s 2001 screenplay Human Nature.  Both films deal with broad themes of humanity in very direct ways, and uncompromisingly makes its points in whatever bizarre way Kaufman wants to.  This film is exploring a number of themes like the effects of aging, fear of mortality, the purpose of art, the challenges of parenting.  The movie is made for people who are going to put some work into deciphering its themes and symbolism, if you’re not that kind of person, then I’m officially not recommending the movie for you.  If you are this kind of person, then read on.

            They say that drama is life without the boring parts; this is a movie about a man who doesn’t realize the boring parts have been cut out.  Most films of this kind take place over a day, maybe a week, but Synecdoche, New York takes place over at least fifty year.  The years pass by here at a rapid pace, but the film never uses any sort of non-diegetic trick to mark the time passage, what’s more Caden constantly seems as confused by the years passing as we are.  The purpose of all this is for one simple purpose, to express the human notion that their life goes by faster then they realize.  For example, Caden’s daughter starts out the film around the age of eight.  Throughout the film Caden seems very confused whenever he’s told she’s older than this and before we know it she’s fully grown.  One is reminded by this of parents saying their offspring will “always be daddy’s little girl.”  Are there easier ways to express these notions?  Probably, but that’s to forget how uncompromising Charlie Kaufman is when he wants to make a point about one of these grand themes.

            Another fairly trippy symbol occurs when a character played by Samantha Morton tries to buy a house, which is on fire.  She is shown this house by a real estate agent who talks about the property in a nonchalant manner despite the obvious flaw of it being on fire.  Morton says she’s afraid of being killed by the fire, but that she’ll by the house because she’s already 36 and not getting any younger.  Presumably this is supposed to represent aging as well, something that is rushed into despite the fact that it will ultimately kill you.  The idea, presumably, is to show that fear of aging is a perfectly rational emotion and that the truly irrational people are those that glamorize the aging process rather than embracing their youth. 

            The film is not only about aging and mortality; it’s also very interested in the purpose of art.  It is easy to assume that Kaufman is again writing himself into his screenplay, much as he did with Adaptation, except in a more covert way.  Caden’s elaborate play is obviously a really stupid and pretentious, and Kaufman knows it.  After all, why would someone want to replicate reality in such detail when you can just live the real thing?  It may also be saying something about just how far an artist will go when he has complete freedom.  Without any kind of resistance or financial constraints Caden has the freedom to work on his play until it is perfect, and because Caden is so ambitious, the result is that his work will never be done.  He set out to make something great, but because he has no reason to stop he ends up making nothing.  His wife’s art by contrast, is comedicly small and manageable, she’s very prolific but what she makes needs a magnifying glass to even be seen.

            These are only a few of the crazy symbols that Kaufman fearlessly throws onto the screen.  I’m not going to list all of my symbolic observations, if I did this would be a very long review, I’m mainly just trying to give the reader an idea what they’d be getting into with this film.  However, I don’t want to give the impression that this can only be enjoyed as a meta exercise in symbolism, though that is a huge part of the movie’s appeal.  The film does work simply as an absurdist narrative, the viewer will empathize with Caden throughout the film.  I especially enjoyed the last twenty minutes when the film begins to reach its final note.  I’d also point out that this is not a movie that just throws out its symbols with reckless abandon, there’s a real method to its madness, a genuine internal logic… probably.

            Roger Ebert has suggested in his review of the movie that the movie probably has to be seen twice.  This is probably true, but it’s a lot easier for him to say as a professional critic who can see the film at a bunch of festivals before it even opens to the public.  As an amateur, probably won’t be able to see it again until its DVD release.  I’m not really comfortable saying whether this is “good” or “bad” until that day comes I suppose the biggest questions I have to ask myself are “did the movie make me want to see it again” and “if so, how much.”  The answers are “yes” and “a lot.”   So I suppose this was quite a success.

***1/2 out of four

Slumdog Millionaire(11/5/2008)

            India is fast emerging as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, a fact that seems to be in conflict with its poor infrastructure and the slums that fill its cities.  The cinema of India is not particularly well known for depicting any of this, it’s mainly known for large budget audience pandering musicals, a cinema that most in the west are aware exists but which few have not bothered to actually see.  Oddly it is mostly outside filmmakers who have been more interested in depicting the social hardships in India with movies like Water, which was made by the Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta.  The new Danny Boyle film, Slumdog Millionaire, would seem to be a much more realistic depiction of the streets of India; but it’s quickly apparent that it is just as interested in pleasing audiences as the Bollywood musicals, except that it’s western audiences it seeks to please.

            The film follows a young man from the streets of Mumbai India named Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who finds his way onto the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (which looks and sounds identical to the American version), where he’s reached the level of ten million Rupees despite a lack of any formal education.  The local authorities are highly suspicious of his advance through the ranks, so they arrest him and subject him to extreme interrogation.  A more disciplined inspector (Irfan Khan) eventually shows up and decides to ask him, question by question, how he managed to attain all this knowledge.  At this point the film begins a series of flashbacks in which it is revealed where he learned each question and which together tell the whole arc of Jamal’s life and how he came to find himself on a game show.

            It would be reductive to call this an Indian version of Forrest Gump, but the similarities between the two films are striking.  Both films tell the recent history of a country through the life story of a seemingly unimportant and lowly citizen who stumbles through larger events.  Both are told through framing stories, though this game show story is significantly more interesting than Gump’s bus stop talk, in fact as far as framing stories go this game show scheme is really top-notch.  Unlike Gump, though, Jamal is less likely to actually stubble through historical events so much as social touchstones of changing times.  This is one of the film’s weakness, it occasionally feels like a white tourists guided tour through India’s stereotypes, almost like the writers brainstormed everything that comes immediately to mind while thinking about the country and through them all in. Bollywood films: check, Hindi Muslim conflict: check, Taj Mahal: check, telemarketing: check, they leave almost no stone unturned, and this is a problem when it would have felt much more natural for them to stick to one region.  It’s almost like if an Indian decided to make a movie about America and made absolutely certain that he included refereces to the Western movie genre, a rally about the abortion issue, a trip to the Lincoln Memorial, and someone working at the Coca-Cola factory.

            Another major work I’d compare the film to is Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” especially during the flashbacks to Jamal’s young days as an orphan on the streets.  These scenes are particularly effective at capturing the chaos of the Mumbai streets.  The depictions of the Mumbai ghettos feel somewhat influenced by Fernando Meirelles’ excellent City of God.  While the life lived by the young Jamal is quite grim but there is a sense he doesn’t really see it that way, there is a sense of Dickensian joviality to his exploits.  He’s a precocious little slumdog and in the tradition of these sorts of stories he finds all kinds of creative and somewhat amusing ways to get by.

            The camera work here is often handheld and the cinematography is relatively grainy compared to most movies, and the editing is fairly aggressive.  This camera work is not done to make the audience even subconsciously think they’re watching a documentary, it’s closer to what Paul Greengrass has achieved with movies like The Bourne Ultimatum, except here it’s applied to a drama instead of a thriller.  The catch is, that Boyle rarely ever goes too far with any of these techniques, the handheld camera isn’t anywhere near as obvious as in Greengrass’ work, the grainy film stock is still clearly 35 millimeter and still quite slick, and the editing shouldn’t be disorienting even to the most sensitive of viewers, but each technique is used just enough to give the movie a certain degree of grit and keep the pace very fast.

            The film’s music mostly excellent.  The original music was composed by a legendary Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman who has clearly mastered the art of using Indian instruments and musical styles to score films.  Rahman’s score is very effective and is probably part of why the film moves so quickly while telling a story with a pretty large scope.  However, I do take issue with the film’s use of the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” a song that is closely associated with the summer of 2008 and feels completely out of place in a flashback scene set before the song was even written.

            The film’s spoken language is divided between English and Hindi, which can be a jarring mix.  The entire section featuring an Adult Jamal including the game show segments are in plain English, while most of the flashbacks to him as a child are in subtitled Hindi.  I really wish that Boyle had just stuck with one language or the other, he should have either made the whole film in Hindi to reflect the actual language of the Indian people, or if he wanted to avoid the whole subtitle thing he should have done it consistently.  As it is, the film seems to depict Jamal mysteriously switching languages somewhere around puberty, and the rest of the country following suit.  This is made all the more confusing when instances pop up of his character actually speaking English to American, British, and German tourists, making it rather unclear when the spoken English is supposed to simply be a translation for the audience or an actual instance of the character speaking English.

            This language problem is made all the more annoying because of the filmmakers decision to use stylized subtitles.  These are subtitles that appear in a number of different areas of the screen rather than staying on the bottom like most film subtitles.  I didn’t like this technique in Man on Fire, I didn’t like it in Night Watch, and I don’t like it here.  When subtitles consistently appear in the same place at the bottom of the screen it’s a lot easier for them to blend in with the language of the film and cease to be noticed then when they’re bouncing all over the place.

            This language material is distracting, but certainly forgivable, what’s not so forgivable is that the film can be a little predictable at times.  Particularly in a pair of scenes that are meant to be suspenseful Who Wants to Be a Millionaire questions, like situation about 2/3 of the way through the movie where he’s given an opportunity to cheat, but anyone whose caught on to the film’s intended message about fate know exactly how Jamal will handle this.  More egregious then this is a case of incredibly obvious foreshadowing where Jamal runs across a piece of useless trivia early on in his life, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this is going to come up again in the final question.  Did I only pick up on these because I’m jaded by seeing so many other movies?  Possibly, but if Boyle had been a little less blatant in his foreshadowing on that second point it would have been a little more suspenseful.

            A lot of the negative things I’m bringing up aren’t really huge problems; in fact they’re flaws bordering on nitpicking.  The reason I find this so interesting is that Danny Boyle’s last film, Sunshine, had a flaw toward the end that was much more egregious then anything I mentioned; and yet I found myself much more willing to forgive Sunshine for its flaw then I am Slumdog Millionaire.  I think this is because all of that film’s problems were confined to the last fifteen minutes and leave the preceding ninety minutes completely flawless, whereas Slumdog Millionaire’s flaws are littered throughout the movie and pervade the entire project. 

            I have problems with the movie, but that doesn’t mean Slumdog Millionaire isn’t a movie I can happily recommend for anyone to see.  At the end of the day this is a feel good story about a character triumphing over adversity, and one that knows when to pander and when not to pander and never feels saccharin.  Basically, it’s a crowd pleaser for people who know how to detect cheese; I’m not surprised that it was able to get enthusiasm from festival audiences.  It should not however be mistaken for a wildly creative film.  In one key way, it actually reminds me of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in that both films take stories that might seem cliché, but tell them in areas we’re not so used to seeing on screen in order to seem fresher then they probably are.  For the most part, Slumdog Millionaire probably is strong enough to get away with this.

***1/2 out of four

Rachel Getting Married(10/23/2008)

            Politicians are always talking about family values, whatever that really means.  There are dozens of movies about the supposed strength of families, about parents losing all control to protect children, about families coming together in desperate situations.  Of course most of this is nonsense, when the chips are down blood usually isn’t as thick as most of these movies will have you believe.  Sometimes, there are going to be people you dislike, and happening to have the same parents as them isn’t always going to change that.  Rachel Getting Married is not a movie about “family values,” it isn’t idealized and it isn’t pretty.  It is, however, an incredibly honest movie; one that I think anyone can relate to on some level.

            Despite the title, the film’s central character is a woman name Kym (Anne Hathaway).  As the film begins Kym is leaving a rehab facility, seemingly for the first time in a while.  She’s going to be with her family for a week or so in order to attend her sister’s wedding.  Her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) seems excited to see her at first, so does her father Paul (Bill Irwin).  But Kym seems to start wearing out her welcome real quick, it becomes increasingly clear that the family holds more animosity toward Kym then they let on because of all the things she put them through while she was a drug addict.  As the weekend goes on the tensions continue to rise, and one begins to wonder if this family is ever going to come back together.

            One has to keep in mind, that this is a film that’s very much about its characters and the way they interact, it is less story driven than most films.  This is a film about an aftermath, about people living with the consequences of things that happened before the movie has started.  The plot description I’ve given is probably frustratingly vague; it had to be because Rachel Getting Married can potentially be a hard film to talk about without spoiling the experience.  A big part of why the film works so well is the way it slowly lets the audience in on this family’s troubled history over the course of the film, but not discussing some of this material makes it hard to really discuss the characters, and their various perspectives and motives.  I’m definitely not going to give anything away, but I will tell you that the film’s first act is not what it appears.  Jenny Lumet’s screenplay drops a bombshell on the audience about a third of the way into the movie which changes everything, forces the audience to rethink all the preceding scenes and fully clarifies everything that’s been going on between the characters.  This is not a plot twist of the M. Night Shyamalan kind, it doesn’t change the plot, but rather it changes things on a personal level, and it changes the audience’s perception of this family’s dynamic.

            The film was directed by Jonathan Demme, who’s probably best known as the filmmaker who brought us The Silence of the Lambs.  That Oscar winning film is not particularly representative of Demme’s body of work; his heart seems to be in independent filmmaking and in the world of low budget documentaries.  Demme is a filmmaker who seems to have a “one for them and one for me” mentality, making studio thrillers like The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate (2004) between documentaries like The Agronomist and concert films like Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of GoldRachel Getting Married is clearly one for the independent side of his cannon.

            The film is shot entirely on handheld digital cameras and I’m sure this was done for stylistic rather than budgetary reasons.  The film looks almost like a home movie, albeit one that is made very professionally, and this gives the viewer a subliminal sense that they are like one of the people in the crowd attending the wedding.  Bear in mind though, that this is an exercise in narrative Cinéma vérité, not mockumentary.  The camera is only supposed to look handheld, and one is not meant to think any actual character is filming everything.  The visual style is reminiscent of the Dogme 95 films that were going on in the last decade, except without the strict “rules” or the general whiff of pretension surrounding that movement. 

            Anne Hathaway was an actress who I hadn’t had much exposure to until now.  Aside from her relatively small role in Brokeback Mountain, I hadn’t seen a single one of her movies.  This performance, however, was a revelation; I’ll definitely be watching her work more closely from now on.  In the film Hathaway almost has to play two roles, as both the scarred Kym who has a profound sense of guilt about her past behavior, and the public Kym who uses sarcasm as a façade to block her more vulnerable side.  Rosemarie DeWitt also has a lot of work here; her character is just as complex as Kym in that she is torn about her feelings toward her sister.  Bill Irwin has a smaller role than either of them, but he’s also important and he’s also really good in the role.

            The film also excels at a form of acting that isn’t often appreciated: extras.  The whole movie is filled with bit or non-speaking parts that are vital to the film’s success.  Frequently the film requires the whole wedding party to perform at the same time in order to create a mood.  There’s a good example of this early on when the family and friends of the betrothed are going around and giving a toast to the couple, each giving appropriate tributes to the two.  There’s a really nice jovial feeling in the room, then Kym stands up and instead of focusing strictly on the soon to be wed couple she starts giving an update of her own condition.  Quickly the mood in the room changes and awkward looks come over all the extras, the sense of discomfort is palpable.  This type of wide raging ensemble work is a big part of what makes this movie work.  The film’s excellent ensemble, vérité style, and down to earth dialogue bring an amazing degree of reality to the whole movie.  The whole thing really does feel like a real wedding, it hasn’t been Hollywooded up at all. 

            The film’s trailer is clearly trying to make this look like the next Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, but that’s wishful thinking on the studio’s part, this is probably not going to cross over into the public as easily as those two did and it’s not really that similar to either of them.  Kym does have a somewhat Juno like attitude every once in a while, but that’s only 10% of the time, and it’s very clearly a defense mechanism rather than her real personality.  It’s even less like Little Miss Sunshine, in fact the two movie are almost exact opposites; LMS is about a family that seems dysfunctional but comes together when the chips are down, while Rachel Getting Married is about a family that seems perfectly cordial but which actually has deep tensions.  Instead I’d liken it to last year’s independent hit Once, except without the whimsy. 

            Rachel Getting Married is an amazing piece of work, one of Jonathan Demme’s absolute best.  There’s something almost voyeuristic in how the film works, the whole affair feels so real that the viewer really thinks he’s wandered into the wedding preparations for a family you don’t really know, but soon will.  There are no easy answers here, the film knows that these people’s problems aren’t going to be solved over the course of a mere weekend, and by the end you wonder if they’ll ever be solved.  The movie is ultimately about forgiveness, or lack thereof.  All of the characters need to find out whether they are truly willing to forgive Kym for her past, most of all herself.

**** out of Four

Zack and Miri Make a Porno(11/2/2008)

            In 1993, a convenience store clerk risked his life savings on a seemingly mad attempt at making a movie.  It was shot on a shoestring budget with cheap 16mm black and white film stock. None of its actors had ever been in a film before and most of the action was in a pair of convenience stores.  What that film, Clerks, did have was a witty, charming, dirty, but most of all hilarious script.  With nothing except a great script to propel it, Clerks became a comedy classic, and its writer director Kevin Smith became a hero to millions of fellow comic book geeks stuck in menial jobs.  Anyone with even a little bit of knowledge about independent cinema has already heard this story many times, but it bears repeating.  Aside from maybe Robert Rodriguez I can hardly name another director who’s successfully managed to launch a lasting career on a credit card funded movie.  Clerks was more than a hilarious movie to me and many others, it was the first time I’d seen a movie show a certain type of person without mocking them, it was a movie that didn’t come from a condescending Hollywood type but from “one of us” so to speak. 

            I’m willing to admit that Kevin Smith is someone I tend to geek out about, the guy’s voice just speaks to me.  However, I don’t show the guy blind love, he’s certainly had his career ups and downs.  Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back are both sort of fun and have their moments, but are really unsubstantial and just kind of stupid.  Chasing Amy was certainly a sign of maturity and worked well on a narrative level, but suffered from just not being very funny.  Dogma, however, had a refreshing take on religion and was also very funny, it was probably the best movie Smith had made since Clerks.  Then Smith made Clerks II, which seemed like a bad idea, but the movie ended up blowing me away.  Clerks II may well have surpassed even the original Clerks I loved it so much.  After that career high I was excited to see what Smith would do next, and this anticipation was increased when Smith announced he’d be working with none other than Seth Rogen, whose been taking the comedy world by storm.

            Zack and Miri Make a Porno doesn’t take place in the View Askewniverse, or even New Jersey for that matter.  The film is set Monreville, PA a town that any zombie enthusiast knows the significance of.  The title characters are a pair of platonic friends who live together in a cheap apartment.  It’s important to emphasize that Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are not lovers, just old high school friends splitting the rent.  The two of them work low paying jobs and are beginning to see their bills pile up.  The day of their high school reunion their water and soon their electricity goes out for lack of payment, leaving them close to homeless.  After meeting a gay porn star (Justin Long in a small but memorable cameo) at the reunion, Zack suddenly gets the bright idea that they can make enough money to pay their bills by making an amateur porno movie, after all this is something that requires next to no skill to produce and has a large market.  Zack convinces his coffee shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to fund the film with the money he was saving up for a flat screen TV in exchange for a return and an opportunity to judge the “auditions.”  Soon they hire a camera operator (Jeff Anderson), a male star (Jason Mewes), and a pair of women stars (Traci Lords & Katie Morgan, both real life porn stars).  This motley crew assembles in a warehouse, ready to begin filming their porn, a dirty sci-fi parody called (what else) Star Whores.

            The casting of Seth Rogen is particularly interesting because of his major involvement in the Judd Apatow movement of comedy, though bear in mind that apatow himself had no involvement in the film.  It’s interesting, though hardly surprising, that Smith has fully embraced this comedic movement.  One could almost see Smith as a forerunner, even a direct influence on the Apatow comedies with their mix of heartfelt story and raunchy humor; they could almost be mistaken for Kevin Smith movies if it weren’t for the absence of pop culture references.  Fortunately, Rogen hasn’t just been cast because he’s been popular recently, he’s been cast here for the same reason he’s always been cast: because he’s good at playing a lovable loser. 

            Elizabeth Banks is almost as important to the film’s success; she has some genuine chemistry with Rogen and can really spout out these fun Smith lines well.  Banks’ character is very similar to the one played by Rosario Dawson in Clerks II, and her performance is almost as good as Dawson’s.  Craig Robinson is also a really cool sidekick in this, his roles here and in Pineapple Express show there’s a lot more to him than his somewhat subdued recurring role on “The Office.”  It was also nice to see a couple of Kevin Smith veterans getting some roles here.  Jeff Anderson, who played Randal in the Clerks movies, has a small role as the porno’s cameraman.  Jason Mewes, who played the role of Jay in six of Kevin Smith’s seven previous films, is here as the male star of the porno they’re making.  Neither of these actors are reaching that far from the roles that made them famous, but it’s nice to see them doing something else just the same, and they are fine in these roles.  The two real porn stars however, I probably could have done without, they’re basically stunt casting and neither of them bring much authenticity to they’re roles.  They aren’t embarrassingly bad or anything, but professional actors probably could have brought more to the roles.

             Zack and Miri Make a Porno has an interesting tone, it’s almost like a cross between the serious relationship drama of Chasing Amy, and the raunch we saw during the bachelor party scene toward the end of Clerks II.  One could say that this is a film that walks a line between two extremes in Kevin Smith’s work, crude humor and sentimental relationship stories.  All of his previous movies tended to fall to one extreme or the other; here they get almost equal time.  This balance is definitely one of the movie’s strengths; it keeps the movie from being pointless like Mallrats, but also makes for a much more funny experience than Chasing Amy.  What’s more, the movie manages to be sentimental in a much more naturalistic than some of the speechifying that came real close to being a problem toward the end of Clerks II.

            One of the film’s surprises is how much Kevin Smith has improved behind the camera.  Funny as Clerks was, its “visual style” was pretty close to being downright amateurish.  With bigger budgets Smith was perfectly able to keep his movies completely competent but they were fairly standard affairs visually.  This has never been much of a distraction, these are not movie that require major talent in the visual department, and Smith certainly belongs behind the camera in his own movies.  Smith has been a lot like a singer songwriter who maybe doesn’t have the greatest voice but is still the right person to sing his own songs simply because that’s the voice the words belong to.  However, with this movie Smith is really better than just competent.  It’s not bravura filmmaking by any stretch, but it isn’t something that needs handicapping either. 

I was, however, also surprised at just how graphic the movie was. Of course Smith’s movies have always been somewhat dirty and something with the word “porno” in the title wasn’t going to be wholesome, but this was still a bit more graphic then I had expected.  Smith’s movies have always traded in very frank and graphic sexual dialogue, and there’s plenty of that on display here, but before he almost never actually showed anything; this time but there is definitely sex and nudity in the scenes where they’re filming the porno.  Bear in mind that this is a film put out by a major studio and not itself a porno, in fact it doesn’t show anything that wasn’t in P.T. Anderson’s porn industry flick Boogie Nights, but it was surprising all the same. 

I’m not a prude, I wasn’t offended by the material, but I got the distinct impression that Smith was actively trying to shock the audience, but to what end?  Possibly he was trying to simply leave the audience not knowing how to react, thus allowing them to fill the void with laughter, but I’m not sure this really worked as well as he was hoping.  The whole thing may well work better on less jaded audiences who haven’t seen the likes of Shortbus and The Dreamers.  What’s more the movie does completely stumble over the line it was walking during a defecation joke that I found simply crass and juvenile. 

Ultimately it is not in the sex scenes that the film works, but in everything going on around them, particularly the dialogue, which is as good if not better than it was in the rest of Smith’s body of work.  If you’ve seen the rest of Smith’s movies you’ll pretty much know what to expect from the script’s fast quips and general fearlessness.  There aren’t as many pop culture references as there used to be, there are a few, but that’s not the focus.  The laugh quotient is not at Clerks II levels, or at the levels of some Apatow films, but there are belly laughs to be found even if they’re not as fast and furious as some of the competition.  Really, I’m maybe being hard on the film because of high expectations.  This is a lot funnier than the average comedy, but between Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and even Tropic Thunder the bar for R-rated comedy has been set pretty high this year.  Maybe I’ve just finally had my fill of comedies where slackers curse and screw a lot.  This has a lot of the elements for a great Kevin Smith movie, but it just didn’t have that extra punch it needed to really stand out, especially with such strong competition recently.

*** out of Four