Zack and Miri Make a Porno

| November 4, 2008

The funniest thing—the only funny thing, really—about Clerks 2, Kevin Smith’s noisy backslide into his own sloppy seconds, was the unflattering irony woven right into its dirt-cheap fabric. Here was a belated, cash-grab sequel, a return to the same characters and situations Smith began his career chronicling, that actually had the audacity to extol the virtues of growing up and moving forward with one’s life. Why should convenience slaves Dante and Randall abandon their eternal adolescence when the man putting the bawdy barbs and catchy zingers in their dirty mouths wasn’t ready to do so himself? Truth is, Smith has spent the better part of his career wrestling with the burden of “growing up,” apologizing for his most foolish follies, making half-hearted stabs at artistic maturation and then retreating immediately to the safety and comfort of his fan-approved juvenilia. After the anything-goes, inside-joke fest that was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith officially closed the door on his insular world of reoccurring jackasses and jerkoffs… only to swing it wide open again when his stab at more nuanced, less sophomoric fare (2004’s admittedly-pretty-terrible Jersey Girl) didn’t do so hot at the box-office.
Sometimes a return to basics is exactly what a flailing artist needs to pull himself out of a creative slump. Yet, contrary to everything a weepy Ben Affleck learned in that aforementioned detour to Grown Up Land, sometimes you can’t go home again. The Smith of today, whose dirty jokes now belie his soggy sentiments, bears little resemblance to the hungry and vulgar wiseass-geek the Weinsteins took under their wing way back in the dog days of the early 90s. Willfully regressive though it is, no one’s going to mistake Clerks 2 for its scrappy, fifteen-year-old predecessor—between its garish song-and-dance number, butt-ugly color photography, and wholly conventional love-triangle narrative, the former has less in common with the latter than it does with, again, Jersey Girl. Totally consistent with the path Smith has clumsily forged since the dawn of this new millennium, Zack and Miri Make a Porno confirms what the writer-director’s notion of artistic maturation has really always been about: chasing his dick-and-fart joke cocktails with straight shots of thick and syrupy sentimentality.
Blessed with a premise that promises both an abundance of raunchy sex quips and a “redemptive” adherence to sappy rom-com requisites, Smith’s latest exercise in stunted adolescence begins with sizzling taint hair, but ends with solemn declarations of undying affection. If that awkward blend of the profane and the cuddly sounds awfully familiar, that’s because it’s more or less the modus operandi of the Judd Apatow laugh factory, a shrewd, splitting-the-difference approach that’s come to define American comedy circa 2008. Though Apatow’s name is nowhere to be found here, his presence is felt in ways both big and small, as though Smith, like David Gordon Green before him, were simply the latest auteur drafted into the Knocked Up mogul’s pratfalls fraternity. (Never mind that Smith could conceivably be considered an influence on Apatow and Co., or that, to be fair to Green, Zack and Miri makes Pineapple Express look like Annie Hall.) Doing Smith-inflected variations on their Apatow-approved personas, everyschlub Seth Rogen and go-to hottie Elizabeth Banks are roommates, BFFs, and fellow wage slaves fighting the slacker good fight in snow-and-grime coated Pittsburgh. Facing certain eviction from their rat’s nest apartment, the two cook up a novel (if totally contrived) get rich quick scheme: they’ll write, direct, and star in an amateur porno, a sex tape they can hock to their ten-years-removed graduating class or, with any luck, to legions of horny, curious, or simply bored web-surfers.
If Zack and Miri’s heart, soul, and central dramatic tension hinges on the will-they-or-won’t-they (screw on camera) tension between Rogen and Banks, Smith scarcely trusts his capable stars to do the broad comedic lifting. That thankless task is left to the supporting cast, the stars of the film’s home-made blue movie, a motley crew of colorful characters embodied by Smith’s regular collaborators (like Jason Mewes, half-way credible as Not Jay), a few familiar faces from the Apatow camp (like “The Office’s” scene-stealing Craig Robinson, easily the funniest person on screen here), and a couple of former, real-life porn stars. With the right material, this spirited band of auxiliary players—an oddball ensemble, with not even a Jason Lee-caliber star in the mix—might have scored some modest laughs. But they’re stranded by a script that reduces all of them to one-trick-pony caricatures, mere mouthpieces for the writer-director’s retrograde, naughty-boy riffs. Like a wide-eyed 14-year-old snickering his way through Sex Ed class, Smith seems convinced that the mere mention of bodily functions and bedroom activities is wildly, hilariously transgressive. Yet none of his foul-mouthed verbiage will elicit even a blush from anyone weaned on the weekly obscenities of “South Park,” the daily dirty talk of Howard Stern, or the gross-out American comedy tropes of a post-Animal House wasteland.
It was probably too much to ask of Smith that he tap into the pleasures and challenges and go-for-broke ingenuity of guerilla filmmaking—even smut has an artistic force behind it, as Boogie Nights joyously reminded us. But did his satirizing of amateur skin flicks have to be so SNL obvious? (The acting is stilted! The dialogue is artless and un-sexy! The plots are contrived!) In the film’s one moment of funny and fleeting insight, Smith suggests that, in this web-obsessed, viral video age, screwing on camera is a potentially viable path to fame and fortune—“Everybody wants to see anybody fuck,” Rogen amusingly asserts. But such relevant cultural commentary seems well out of reach for a filmmaker firmly fixed in the last decade, when he was still an important (albeit hotly debated) figure of the American indie movie scene. Were it not for a couple of references to YouTube and flatscreen TVs, Zack and Miri might well be some lost relic of the mid-90s, Mallrats drenched in date movie schmaltz. Smith’s Pittsburgh is not unlike his New Jersey: a Land That Time Forgot, or, one imagines, an approximation of his own grunge-slacker teen years. The soundtrack is even peppered with songs from that era, though at only one point—the painfully long high school reunion scene, nestled into the film’s chronically unfunny first act—do such dated cultural signifiers make a lick of sense. Jason Mewes may have finally shed his tired stoner-idiot shtick and Jeff Anderson may have ditched the Randall-ready polyester uniform, but make no mistake: we are safely and firmly entrenched in the View Askew universe.
And Smith preaches to his adoring choir in the only way he knows how. There are jokes about hand-jobs and gay sex, bare asses and granny panties, constipation and masturbation. Oh, and Star Wars, of course—the big guy’s always fancied himself one part potty-mouthed provocateur, two parts uber-geek fanboy. What makes Zack and Miri so insufferable is the healthy helping of Apatow cheese drizzled on top, the sensitive-guy sealant filling in the cracks between the porno-title puns and the faux-risqué sight gags. It’s a market-tested balancing act, and it makes one seriously long for the endearing awkwardness of Chasing Amy, still Smith’s most personal film. Though it hasn’t exactly aged well, the filmmaker’s messy, damaged-heart third feature—his first and most genuine attempt to “grow up”—at least challenged the conventions of contemporary romantic comedies, defying the expected trajectory of its boy-meets-girl narrative. Expel all the tittering sex talk, and Zack and Miri is just another Regular-Joe-nabs-Gorgeous-Best-Friend fantasy fable—business as usual in the Apatow Era. Still, Rogen and Banks, never completely neutered by the strained comic banter Smith makes them recite, almost transform this formula romance into something worth fretting over. The film’s centerpiece is their on-camera sex scene, an uncomfortable encounter that becomes a euphoric one, and the two stars damn near sell it as the transformative experience it’s meant to be. “We went in to fuck, and we ended up making love,” declares Rogen. It’s a sweet sentiment, but one that rings just a bit false when followed, not two minutes later, by Anderson getting a big face-full of feces. I guess you can take the boy out of the Quick Stop, but you can’t take the Quick Stop out of the boy.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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