There was a time, in the mid 80’s, when porno was simpler, when the endless, orgiastic carnal smorgasbord we have today was more like a sexual salad bar spread across 2 channels: Playboy and Spice. And if you were a teenage boy sick of seeding your favorite spank rags, those two often blocked channels were your holy grail. And sometimes, the encryption would teeter on the brink of giving you free boobies for your viewing pleasure. And on those days, you would tune to the Playboy, or the Spice channel, and you would peer at the screen like Joseph Smith trying to read plates at the bottom of a hat, and you would fool your groin into thinking you’d seen an errant boob, or a warped,
Salvador-Dali representation of vagina. And you’d get an illicit thrill looking at moving naughtiness on your screen, but ultimately, you’d be thwarted by RF noise foiling your teenage priapism.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno is that frustrating a viewing experience.Actually, it’s less like that, because there’s a lot of genitalia on display, some of which you’d wish was hidden behind cable-box scrambling (Jason Mewes.) It’s more like when you finally got clear reception of the Spice Channel and realized that there was less on-screen penetration than a convent. That’s the frustration level I’m talking about. The comparisons coming out of various festival screenings keep invoking Chasing Amy as a comparison point, an example of the emotionality inside, the ability to veer from genuinely hilarious gross-out comedy to insightful relationship study. Those comparisons are maybe about half right if you liked Chasing Amy, and probably completely right if you hated Chasing Amy.
Seth Rogen plays Zack, in probably the last “lovable schlump pulling chicks way out of his goddamned wheelhouse” role he can play before people start hating his chubby ass on general principle. Unless of course he gets really neurotic, drops about 50 pounds, and starts banging Mia Farrow. Then he can make those movies until he nails his adopted daughter on the day she turns legal. Zack is a barista at the coffee equivalent to Mooby’s from Clerks II. Elizabeth Banks plays Miri, in a role that, along with her portrayal of Laura Bush in W. will hopefully get her the spotlight she deserves. Zack and Miri live in a crappy apartment and they’re both broke to the point their burning unpaid bills in a barrel to stay warm. These two lifelong friends go to a high school reunion on Thanskgiving Eve, where Miri meets her highschool crush Bobby Long, played by Brandon Routh as Clark Kent. Bobby is the significant other of Brandon (Justin Long) a gay porn actor with a vocal range that sounds as if his last boyfriend ejaculated nothing but hot gravel. As Miri flails amiably with Clark, Zack observes Brandon engage in a funny little lover’s tiff, and that plants the seeds of his can’t-fail get rich scheme as explained in the title of the movie.
Ostensibly, the movie is about how Kevin made Clerks: Zack is a chubby, scruffy dude with more ambition than common sense, but he plows ahead and makes a movie at his work, a ramshackle, cheap looking, charming film that resonates with people on a level not intended by the filmmakers. Except this reading sorta asks the viewers to envision Kevin Smith boning Scott Mosier on a 10 pound sack of coffee beans inbetween editing Clerks at the RST. That might be a bit too literal, but once again, Kevin Smith is writing about Kevin Smith. If Clerks II was essentially his admission that “Okay, I’m in a rut, but yunno what, I LIKE my rut, and getting caught in a rut doesn’t have to be that bad.” Then “Zack and Miri,” is him looking back at when he entered this rut and clapping loudly at the memories. Clerks II” handled the combination of schmaltz and schmutz a little more evenly than this film does,
All Kevin Smith movies seem to work in spite of themselves, for a variety of reasons. With “Zack and Miri,” it works because of Banks who just shines in every second she’s onscreen. There are moments in this film where she throws back her head and giggles to herself, and the smile that comes off the screen is so winning, it’s hard to believe she hasn’t already inherited the Rom-Com go-to crown that Meg Ryan owned in the 80’s and 90’s like Michael Jordan owned the Knicks. Miri isn’t the best written character Smith’s put on paper, and sometimes he falls back into his old habits of writing her like Zack with tits, who he writes like Brodie with a jew-fro, but she takes that character and makes her a combination of funny, charming, beautiful and heartbreaking, often all at the same time.
For the more prurient amongst you, that winning glow doesn’t include her chest: She’s not topless. Katie Morgan is. Traci Lords isn’t. Jason Mewes is. Craig Robinson isn’t. Craig Robinson is by far the funniest thing in the film, however, so I consider that a fair enough trade. As a matter of fact, I’m willing to bet that Robinson gets one of the few Smith monologues in the movie (an improvement over his previous scripts, which often felt like half SNL skit/half speech class) because he was so damned good in every other scene, as kind of a reward. Because the speech Robinson gives, although he gives it well, is utterly
And that’s where the frustration comes in. When Smith wants to be funny, he’s pretty damned funny, and it helps that he liberally lifted from the Apatow bench to populate his cast. There are gags and back-and-forths in this film that rank amongst some of the snappiest shit Smith has ever scripted, and Rogen, Robinson and Banks play pepper with the lines. Mewes isn’t playing Jay, Jeff Anderson isn’t playing Randal, although Gerry Bednob is playing the angry pottymouth from 40 Year Old Virgin but that’s fine because he’s only in the movie for about 5 minutes and that schtick still has a few larfs or two left in it.
But when Smith wants to tug at the heartstrings, he kneecaps himself about every single time. Almost every “serious” moment is scored with a shitty pop-song from the mid-nineties and it lends the film all the emotionality of a “Lost” fan-vid on YouTube, which I imagine Smith has seen more than his share of. James Venable is credited with the score of the film, and for the life of me, I can’t remember a single piece of music he wrote, as the wall-to-wall Alternative-Era soundtrack slathered over the movie does all the heavy lifting. It’s frustrating because the performance Banks gives makes you want, so hard, to buy into the implausible (but not Chasing Amy levels of implausible) romantic element, and Smith keeps yanking the rug out from under her and stopping his film cold with his decision to split the film into two modes: “Pretty damned funny” and “Hallmark drenched in sap directed by SawyerNKate4Ever77”
Dave Klein shot this thing pretty enough. Smith edited it well. It moves at a decent pace, though it starts to drag with about 20 minutes to go. You’re guaranteed at least one big laugh every time Robinson is onscreen. Traci Lords knows her way around a strap on. Katie Morgan is the cutest ditz onscreen since Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, but she gets topless and takes a railing from Jason Mewes. Silverstone didn’t do that, and wound up in “Batman and Robin” and “Excess Baggage,” so maybe there’s a chance for Ms. Morgan. I want to marry Elizabeth Banks after this, and I can’t wait for Rogen to kick ass as the Green Hornet if only because I think it’s about time he breaks from this rut and stretch a little. Like Smith won’t do. This movie isn’t so much his stretching
out. He’s not even rearranging the furniture. He’s just put an Apatow-brand couch cover over the top of his favorite sofa. But it’s a comfy enough couch.
Worth a sit or two.