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

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