BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” by any other name, would still be the raunchiest comedy of the year.
But it’s not the subject, or the story, or the often lewd goings-on that had everyone with their knickers in a knot, a week before the movie opens Friday. Although shamelessly vulgar and sexual, “Zack and Miri” is far less lascivious than any Pussycat Dolls video; it’s less coyly suggestive than any one of the 20-odd Viagra ads that run during “Monday Night Football” (which, by the way, declined to run an unedited ad for “Zack and Miri”). But it does have the word “porno” in the title. And there’s the rub.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Katie Morgan, Traci Lords
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 31 Oct 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 14 Nov 2008 (General release); 2008)
Looking like a bearded bag of laundry concealing a sofa, director Kevin Smith - the first man ever to receive an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America based solely on language, for “Clerks” - welcomes his visitor. His hotel room is drape-shuttered against the California morning; it is redolent with deceased Marlboros. His movie, which stars Seth Rogen (“Knocked Up”) and Elizabeth Banks (“W.”), concerns longtime friends and roommates who fall into a financial hole and try to get out of it by making a pornographic movie.
That they are utterly inept at putting sex on celluloid provides the comedy. That they happen to be in love with each other provides the winsome romance. Other folks have provided the controversy.
“There are some people in the country, I’ve discovered over the last two weeks, who think this really is a porno,” Smith said, with ironic exasperation. “They say, ‘I can’t believe they’re advertising porn in the mainstream.” I go, ‘Are you retarded? When was the last porno you saw that had ‘porno’ in the title?’”
Regardless, “the word” has led Boston city fathers to take ads off their buses; Philadelphia has reacted similarly; and “Monday Night Football,” despite all the income it derives from erectile dysfunction relief, made the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Co., delete the last three words of the title. Smith, father of a 9-year-old girl, thinks the hubbub is overblown.
“My kid asks me what a porno is, and I say, ‘It doesn’t have Zack and Cody, Hannah Montana or Zac Efron in it, so you don’t care,’” he said, referring to stars of the Disney Channel. “But my kid’s smart, ‘cause at one point, she said the whole title out loud, and I said, “Do you know what a porno is?’ And she said ‘Yeah, it’s what you do for a living.’”
Smith laughs. “But she has no interest in my movies ‘cause they’re about a bunch of adults standing around talking. And they’re not talking about stuff she likes, like elephants. And flowers. And Zack and Cody.”
“I don’t have kids,” said Smith’s longtime producer, Scott Mosier, “but I have gone to my friends who have kids and asked a bunch of them about the ‘porno’-on-a-poster thing, and 99 percent said, ‘What about all the posters that say ‘death,’ ‘slaughter’ and ‘murder’ and have images that are a lot more frightening?’
“They also say, ‘Of all the stuff I have to deal with, that is not one of the big problems.’”
Mosier and Smith have had public run-ins with public censors before, on “Clerks,” in 1994, the irreverent “Dogma” in 1999 and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001). In a slightly different brand of contretemps, Smith feuded with the late TV reviewer Joel Siegel after Siegel stormed out of a “Clerks II” screening. His talents - which are showcased on screen, on Web sites and in comic books - are primarily as a writer. Something that can give actors pause.
“When you go into a situation with a writer/director, you’re always a little nervous that they’re going to be precious about their words,” said Banks, currently appearing as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W.” and teamed in “Zack and Miri” with her “40-Year-Old Virgin” colleague Rogen and former adult film star Traci Lords.
“I mean, they take a long time writing these things,” she smiled. “But the pleasant surprise about Kevin is that he’s not precious about it at all, and while I had no problem at all with the script, when you’re making comedy - Seth and I both agree - you’re doing the same joke over and over. And by take five, you’re asking, ‘Does it still have any freshness to it?’ So you start to improv.”
Smith was open to that, she said, calling her director “a huge romantic.”
“This movie reminds me of ‘Chasing Amy,’” she said, referring to the 1997 Smith film starring Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee and Ben Affleck. “Kevin’s a genius at mixing the sweet and the spicy. If this was just romance, we would have made ‘Bridges of Madison County.’ You have to cut the romance with something funny, otherwise you’re watching ‘The Notebook.’”
No one will be mistaking “Zack and Miri” for “The Notebook.”
In the era of director-producer Judd Apatow (“40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked up,’ “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express”) and the rise of the R-rated comedy, what they will find is a movie that goes for broke. (Mosier: “Nobody gets killed. Nobody gets their skin peeled off. It’s generally all natural stuff. But you don’t necessarily want to take your kid and say, ‘OK, this is going to be the basis for your sex education for the rest of your life ...”).
“All the Judd stuff doesn’t make me step up my game, in terms of ‘I’m gonna be more vulgar,’” Smith said. “But the Judd stuff was a real revelation, because for years I felt that if you’re going to mix raunch and sweetness you’re never going to make more than 30 million bucks.”
Which is what they grossed, he said, on their biggest hits, “Dogma” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”
“And that’s a formula that I’ve been making since ‘94,” he said. “Suddenly Judd and company shatter that ceiling and prove you can make the kind of movie I make, and it can make a lot of money. So I was like, ‘Oh man, I was wrong all this time. It’s not them. It’s me!’”