[30 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart.
For most of their lives, Zack and Miri have been friends - very good, very close friends. Even though they share most things and now live together, their relationship has remained strictly platonic. Yet life in 2008 is not easy. Mounting bills, and a lack of payment options threaten their marginal existence. As luck would have it, a chance encounter with a gay porn star at their high school reunion leads the duo to a desperate conclusion - they need to do something to solve their money problems. The answer? Make a homemade adult film. Of course, it sounds much easier than it ends up being. Rounding up some local talent and a few friends, the original plan is to produce a XXX take on Star Wars. When that production implodes, the couple must find a new venue and premise. None of this addresses the bigger concern, however - how will having sex affect Zack and Miri’s friendship?
In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.
As with most of his projects, Zack and Miri is expertly cast. Smith associates Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson are along for the ride, and Rogen is joined by Craig Robinson a fellow refugee from Judd Apatow’s comic company. Toss in former porn queen Traci Lords and current adult star Katie Morgan, and some wonderful cameos from Kenny Hotz, Justin Long and Brandon Routh and you’ve got a can’t miss crew of talent. Smith makes the most of them, offering up his standard stellar dialogue with an improving acumen behind the camera that’s a joy to behold. Instead of a strict point and shoot stylizing, there are moments of visual intrigue that indicate a cinematic confidence that Smith seemed to lack before. And no one handles the incorporation of music into a movie in such a rich, meaningful way.
As for the leads, both Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks shine. He is less extroverted here than when paling around with his former Freaks and Geeks consorts. Instead, Zack comes across as a dreamer who needs the proper catalyst to come out of his shell. In that regard, Miri stands as the perfect foil/symbolic fixture. She’s the hot chick with a definitive dork soul, and she accepts Zack on a level much deeper than any other woman could. Together, they generate the kind of chemistry you can’t buy in Hollywood, and turn what could have been a sunny collection of smut jokes into something really heartfelt and sincere. If we don’t buy the pairing, we won’t accept the porn. Smith successfully sells us both.
Indeed, the real surprise here is the film’s solid emotional core. Smith hasn’t shied away from presenting love and devotion onscreen. Both Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl centered on the universal connections between people and how we all fumble and fail while making them. Heck, even his Clerks climate has strong ties to individual feelings, friendship, and faith. But Zack and Miri is different. We want to see these people together, to see how their lives would change should their relationship become more (much more) than just roommates. The result is revelatory. Sure, some may argue that the last act turmoil is typical for a post-modern RomCom, but Smith keeps us guessing until the end.
That all this formulaic fuzziness exists in a film which wallows in nudity, crudeness, and random genital jokes is Zack and Miri‘s final genius move. Smith’s strategy to push the limits of what is acceptable remains consistent, but there is never a time when the gratuity or gross-outs overwhelm the narrative (well…maybe once). Smith stands solidly behind his people, making strippers as friendly and multidimensional as frustrated coffee shop baristas. So when a character illustrates her unique “bubble blowing” abilities, or complains about constipation - graphically - the tackiness doesn’t damage our howling good time. Instead, Smith keeps everything rooted firmly in reality. On occasion, Zack and Miri displays a dark, depressing atmosphere that’s hard to shake.
To some, Zack and Miri make a Porno will play like a Kevin Smith film co-opted by the mundane and measured out with one too many Inside Seka splashes. And there is definitely a demographic who will view the consistent carnality and claim all kinds of corruption and exploitation. But outside the buzzword basics, this is a great film. It’s funny, inventive, irreverent, subversive, and tastelessly terrific. It never tries to be more than a story of individuals, of how relationships are tested and interpersonal barriers are overcome. While he threatens to change things up and make a horror film next time out, Kevin Smith has finally found his real calling. As long as he continues to celebrate the marginalized and takes to championing Everyman (and woman), he might just become a wanton Woody Allen. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is proof of this. It’s one of 2008’s best.