It’s amazing how integrated pornography has become in our culture. Merely a few decades ago people had to wear disguises to venture out to a ratty theater to watch an adult movie alongside plenty of folks in raincoats helping to add to the sticky floors. Nowadays releasing a sex tape is considered a career boost. Porn stars have replaced supermodels as rock star arm candy, porn has become more socially acceptable, and a wealth of bizarre and explicit possibilities exist just a few keystrokes away. In the end, it’s all fantasy with bad acting.
And yet Kevin Smith’s newest comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got in trouble with advertisers because of people getting in a tizzy over the goofy word “porno.” Major League Baseball was told that a father was uncomfortably asked by his son what a “porno” was after seeing a commercial during a ball game. Heaven forbid our nation’s parents have to deal with an uncomfortable subject, so baseball banned any ads for the movie. Many newspapers nationwide have refused to list the full title. The original poster was deemed too inappropriate so Smith and crew devised a poster of stick figures. Poster version 2.0 then came under fire for being attractive to children because of the stick figure art. It seems Zack and Miri is getting it at both ends (no pun intended).
Times are tough for lifelong friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks). They’re scrambling to pay their bills and keep the electricity in their apartment during a chilly winter in Pennsylvania. Inspired by a conversation with a chatty gay porn star (Justin Long) at their tenth year high school reunion, Zack believes amateur porn can solve their money woes. The two will make their own porn video and sell it to the alumni list from their graduating class, who, Zack rationalizes, would buy a porn if they knew someone involved. Zack convinces his coffee shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to help fund the project. Delaney agrees as long as he can have a say in casting; after many years of marriage he is eager to see something new. The team also recruits a squeaky-voiced stripper (current porn starlet Katie Morgan), an old bachelor party performer (former porn starlet Traci Lords), a cameraman (Jeff Anderson), and a man free from any inhibition (Jason Mewes). But Zack and Miri must confront their unspoken feelings for one another as they approach their own sex scene. Can they go from platonic friends to lovers?
Being a Smith film, naturally Zack and Miri is outrageous and often hysterical. The film manages to become witty and dirty at the same time, often stringing together vulgarities in exciting and imaginative ways (the curious “Dutch Rudder” as a means of escaping being deemed gay). Smith has a love of the profane. The movie is vulgar like most Smith movies but the beauty of its filth is in the sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue that adds eloquence to the scatological. This is Smith’s comedic brand, the verbose dirty joke. As in other Smith comedies, the true humor is not found in set pieces and set-ups but in the everyday camaraderie of the cast and through casual conversations. Smith writes characters that you just want to listen to for hours. Zack and Miri does have some funny moments that are specific to the production of randy moviemaking, like an unforgettable de-clogging that “frosts” a cameraman. The joke is swift. However, akin to the Judd Apatow brand of comedy, this is a movie where the charm is watching the characters interact, regardless of setting. I do think the movie unfortunately missed plenty of other potential gags on the silly minutia of homemade pornography. How about the crazy duties for a sound design? Imagine a guy trying to recreate the many weird bodily sounds during sex. I’m mildly shocked that Smith didn’t even touch the vagaries of pubic hair style.
What the movie does nicely is dwell upon the distinction between love and sex. Now I’m not conveniently forgetting the thousands of movies that have come before and dealt with the topic of intimacy and carnality, but Zack and Miri goes into the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of an industry that has turned intimacy into a mass-market business model. Zack and Miri stress out about their Big Scene and try to convince themselves that it won’t mean anything, but of course their body language betrays them. The actual deed is an obvious turning point for the twosome and count this as one sex scene that is actually, well, emotionally climactic and, yes, sexy. Though the camera only stays at shoulder-length and alternates between two angles, the actors convincingly convey an array of genuine feelings, notably love. It’s not easy for an actor to display honest-to-goodness love, but Banks and Rogen achieve this feat. The aftermath of their onscreen coupling extends into a seemingly unnecessary third act that divides them apart in a contrived fashion. Seriously, the typical third act misunderstanding in standard romantic comedy fluff is alive and well in a Smith vehicle. The characters do not react to this misunderstanding in a realistic manner; one character would rather be sequestered than easily prove their innocence.
While Zack and Miri has plenty of laughs and a nice, mushy center, I cannot help but feel mixed about the results. The characters are not nearly as sharply drawn as they have been in other Apatow comedies, even other Kevin Smith movies. I can go back and remember the multiple dimensions of the funny people that populated Superbad, Sarah Marshall, 40-Year Old Virgin and others, but Kevin Smith’s latest comedy suffers in comparison. Zack and Miri are the only characters with moderate sums of characterization, and yet their unspoken love is essentially the bulk of that. Neither character is well defined or explored in a substantial way that doesn’t involve the other. I get that the movie is a romance. But I expect more from characters than to be defined by whom they desire. I just wanted more. Yes Zack is a slacker who says he’s just looking for a good time, though we know he has his sights set on more, and yes Miri is a gorgeous gal with a lot of patience, but these characters are staples of Kevin Smith movies. The assorted side characters have fun moments but are mostly insignificant. There’s the stripper with a heart of gold, the been-around-the-block type, the henpecked husband, the secret freak behind the button-down exterior, the loudmouth, and the sex-crazed dude. Zack and Miri establishes the idea of filmmaking as a community by introducing this lot, but the movie then forgets to incorporate the supporting characters in meaningful ways. They’re mostly used for jokes that fail to extend beyond the immediate. A late scene involving Delaney’s angry wife (Tisha Campbell-Martin) relies on too many grating “white boy” japes that I tuned out. I’m not intending to slam Smith’s film, but the lack of character work hampers the audience investment in the central romance.
What is lacking on paper is nearly compensated by the great performances from Rogen and Banks. Both are on loan from the Apatow comedy company, and both are skilled at being raunchy one second and heartfelt the next. Rogen finds his comic groove easily and is an enjoyable schmo that taps hidden ambition in the most unlikely of scenarios. It really is Banks who comes across as the star of the flick. She can talk trash with the boys but she is radiant during the film’s dramatic moments, selling Miri’s emotional highs and lows with crinkling smiles and fluttering eyelashes. Banks has always been a solid actress underutilized by most of her marginal film roles. With Zack and Miri, Banks showcases a devilish comedic gleam. Of course yet again the audience must believe that a beautiful gal with a beaming smile would be down on her luck finding a good guy.
In the end (no pun intended), Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a crude romantic comedy that might have benefited by more attention spent on the romance or the comedy. The tone never breaks as sharply as with Chasing Amy, arguably still Smith’s finest accomplishment, but the dirty humor and the gooey romance have a hard time expanding because of the presence of each other. Too often the ribald humor doesn’t feel fully realized because the dirty jokes are just window dressing for the romance, and I had trouble fully engaging with the romance because the characters haven’t been rendered to have substantial depth. Smith may have been better served by making his movie longer; the film is barely an hour and 40 minutes long. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a sweet movie with a dirty mind but it does not measure up to recent comedies like the best of Apatow’s brand. Smith is a talented wordsmith who certainly knows how to make an entertaining comedy, and Zack and Miri certainly entertains, but like pornography, it just made me want something more fleshed-out and real (no pun intended).
Nate’s Grade: B-