[31 October 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Delaney (Craig Robinson) spends long hours at work. With Zack (Seth Rogen), he serves coffee at the Bean-N-Gone, but Delaney’s not anything like his buddy. Where Zack lives hand-to-mouth, at the end of each month scrambling for rent money and a little extra to pay the electricity bill, Delaney is a planner. He has a house, a will to get ahead, and a bank account where he puts his money away.
He’s also got a wife (Tisha Campbell-Martin), unnamed and, for most of Zack and Miri Make a Porno‘s running time, unseen. She only appears, near film’s end, to illuminate her husband’s friendship with Zack. Following a series of disasters—the sorts of disasters that tend to befall eager and inept young men in Kevin Smith movies—Delaney brings Zack home with him, at last introducing the woman who wields such power over him. As the boys make their way inside, she yells out from the sofa where she reclines: “Where the fuck have you been?”
Errk. Delaney’s domineering wife is not the only stereotype who shows up in Zack and Miri (a couple of gay male porn stars, played by Brandon “Superman” Routh and Justin “I’m a Mac” Long, are equally exasperating), but she is the shrillest. “White boys love me,” she informs Zack, who makes a face and a quick exit.
Zack’s comic response ensures that the wife is the primary object of ridicule here. It also ensures his (and your) sympathy for Delaney, now looking slightly sheepish and like a hardy survivor of daily whipping. The wife helps to explain Delaney’s interest in the porno Zack and his roommate Miri (Elizabeth Banks) make for most of Zack and Miri. As the project’s producer, Delaney agrees to risk his savings because: a) he’s Zack’s buddy, b) he really wants to make money, and c) he really, really seeks an fantasy-escape from this scary wife (on set, he watches the performers with rapt enthusiasm, but resists the temptation to participate, apparently imagining the dire consequences awaiting him at home).
Throughout the porno-making, Delaney plays the nerd’s nerd, the black guy who makes the white guy look relatively cool (and, of course, offer the requisite black guy commentary, e.g., “White people are fucked up!”). If Zack is one more iteration of Rogen’s patented scruffy dolt, Delaney is even more ignorant, titillated by “free titties” (offered up by porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan) and contentedly sidekicky. It is in this capacity that Delaney delivers the evidence Zack needs in order to be able to declare his love for Miri, a love that is glaringly visible since frame one and that takes him another 100 minutes of screen time to sort out.
In this sentimental romance plot, the same one Smith has been working since Clerks, Zack has been living since high school in an apartment with Miri, unable to admit to himself or her that the many interchangeable girls he’s bedded have only been substitutes for her. When they’re so hard-pressed for rent money that they decide to make the porno, the couple is suddenly cast into a raucous (if dated) world of adult entertainment. Zack and Miri indulges in all the adolescent-boy-fantasizing you’d expect: lots of lewd spewing, fretting, and thrusting, willing girls and eager wide-eyed boys, and a climactic, quite literal “shit shot.” Still, it’s the same story as in Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl, and the Clerks: all the hubbub leads to standard coupling, the regular boy wins the exceptional girl (because in the boy’s mind, she is always exceptional, even if, in your mind, she’s settling).
The gimmick in this version is that Zack and Miri’s sex act is not the final clinch, but only a step toward that clinch. When first performed for the porno (called “Swallow My Cockuccino”) in the coffee shop’s back room, atop a sack of beans, it is uncomfortable to watch precisely because it is so real, that is, not faux-lusty moaning and groaning, but actual desiring and fulfilling. If neither Zack nor Miri admits it, the proof of their true love is in the video, which Delaney—best buddy to the end—keeps on the editing bay in his basement (home of Niggarich Productions), until at last he can show it to Zack.
Though it takes too long to happen, and though it is preceded by all manner of tedious gags and broad characterizations, the revelation-by-porno moment is, in its way, clever. It’s a joke about the promise of porn, the promise that it tells the truth. Unlike mainstream movies, sex movies offer up real penetrations and real climaxes, sometimes available in clinical close-ups to demonstrate their authenticity, and ending—at least in old-fashioned hetero-porn, the kind Zack and Miri emulates—with ejaculation, the surest sign of uncontrollable bodily truth. No matter that girls’ climaxes, indicated in close-ups of their faces, have never been so verifiable as boys’. The traditional male viewer of hetero-porn believes as much as he needs to, in order to feel aroused. Just so, Zack and Miri‘s proof of the couple’s love is in their faces. Believe it if you need to.