Kevin Smith: Not Quite Mainstream (Zack and Miri Make a Porno/ Sold Out!: A Threevening with…)

[1 February 2009]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

For Kevin Smith, it’s all about the story. It’s not about fancy camera angles, inferred symbolism, realistic special effects, thematic resonance, or the inevitable flights of filmmaking imagination. No, if it’s not about the characters, their interaction, and the way in which said truth (sprinkled with occasional scatology) sells the narrative, he’s history. In the recent stand-up/concert documentary Sold Out: A Threevening with Kevin Smith (now out on DVD), the writer/director of such slacker classics as Clerks and Chasing Amy offered up an anecdote about the making of his sensational 2006 comedy Clerks II. For him, it kind of sums up the filmmaking process in general, and his career specifically.

In a conversation with producer Harvey Weinstein, a pair of notes (Hollywood speak for possible changes) came to the fore. To hear Smith tell it, Weinstein wanted a dance sequence to feature actress Rosario Dawson in a single full head to toe take. No half-shot. No close-up. Head to toe. That’s how musical numbers are framed, he argued, offering Rob Marshall and Chicago as an example. He then moved on to a much greater concern, at least in his behind the scenes brain. It had to do with Pillow Pants. For those who know the film, the imaginary character plays an important part in naïve fast- food employee Elias’ assumed sex life. For Smith, it was merely the ends to a hilarious means. For Weinstein, however, it was a visual necessity - so much so that he demanded the genital imp be depicted in the film. Smith shrunk in his chair, another case of design over dialogue threatening his vision.

It’s these sorts of situations, and the hilarious ways he deals with them, that color Smith’s otherwise oddball career. He is hugely popular in the new web frontier of onli-nation, has what many would consider to be one of the largest, most vocal cult followings, and has almost never had to compromise his artistic approach to make the movie a studio or a suit wants to see. Of course, the payoff for such implied insularity is success - Smith has yet to make a legitimate, Tinsel Town style hit. While his movies make money, they don’t blow the doors off the box office. Even his latest, the brilliant Zack and Miri Make a Porno (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company), couldn’t cash in on the hyper-huge homunculus success of it’s ‘Friend of Apatow’ leading man (Seth Rogen), the bubbly sexual spryness of co-star Elizabeth Banks (a 2007 everywhere girl) and the familiar foul mouthed funny business that Smith was responsible for jumpstarting.

As part of his always enjoyable Smodcasts, Smith and producer pal Scott Mosier recently spent nearly three hours in what the duo called a “talking cure”, trying to decipher why something so surefire (Weinstein approved the project on the strength of the title alone) failed to ignite profitable public interest. Many different theories were proposed: it had to be the sex… although nothing scandalous was even shown; It had to be the inference of same, even with the imagined mainstream acceptance of smut; Perhaps it was the timing, since the idea of opening a wild carnal comedy on Halloween makes one question the marketing acumen of all involved; Whatever it was, one of the best movies of 2008 came and went without even breaching the bottom of Cineplex coffers.

It makes no sense, really. Zack and Miri Make a Porno has everything you’d want from a film made by one of cinema’s greatest writers. The dialogue sparkles with wit and wicked humor. The characters are clearly drawn and given many individual moments to shine. We get completely involved in the title character’s plight, wondering what will happen and cheering/dreading the next aspect of the adventure. Both Rogen and Banks are stellar, essaying people who talk like regular folk while still embracing Smith’s sometimes smarter than thou hipness. With Craig Robinson stealing every scene he’s in as brash badass Delaney, View Askew regulars Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes working way outside their familiarity zone, and sly supporting turns by supporting eye candy Traci Lords and Katie Morgan, there is literally nothing wrong with Smith’s set-up.

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. 

So why did things turn out so average - not aesthetically, but commercially? Has Smith as a filmmaker spent all of his cultural carte blanche on being an open book, so much so that he can no longer surprise or inspire? Are his fans really fair-weather, supporting his books and his personal appearances, but lacking the drive to actually walk up to the ticket booth and buy a seat. Sadly, the DVD release offers little of the perspective we’ve come to expect from a Smith release. While the two-part Smodcast gave Mosier and his man a chance to debate, the lack of a commentary track on the disc indicates that, aside from explaining the movie in general, Smith has little else to say on the subject. Similarly, there are almost 90 minutes of deleted scenes offered. Clearly, Smith creates his films meticulously, removing subplots (Mewes weird “pimp”) and backstory to advance the jokes.

And Zack and Miri Make a Porno is indeed funny. It’s outrageous and outsized at times, but Rogen and company know comedy. During the outtakes and bloopers, we see how improvisation helped spice up several of the scenes. Similarly, Rogen and co-star Justin Long (who plays a gay XXX star) go toe to toe in a featurette that attempts to prove who the best ad-libber is. Still, we want more of Smith’s semi-serious philosophizing, the kind of clear vision insight he offers in things like Threevening. There, no holds are barred, from the surreal situation of costarring in the latest installment of the Die Hard series, to how he ended up with a miniature dachshund named Shecky. There’s even a thorough overview regarding a recent battle with anal fissures.

Maybe that’s it - maybe Smith’s outspoken nature, in combination with his ‘anything goes’ approach to subject matter makes his movies just slightly outside the comfort level of the mainstream. While $30 to $40 million is nothing to sneeze at, something like Zack and Miri deserves a much larger, near blockbuster acceptance. It’s more than just barbs aimed at boobs, balls, and boners. It’s not all adolescent level giggling. Again, it’s actually a heartfelt, touching, and quite emotional experience, made by a man who might talk ad nauseum about crude carnal exploits, but who is actually a romantic at heart. Oddly enough, Smith seems resigned to his situation (current Smodcast sentiments aside).

During Threevening, he rants about how bored he was by Bryan Singer’s recent Superman update. A financial success, Smith argues about the numerous plot holes and character beats that he didn’t care for. Toward the end, after more or less eviscerating everything that chaffed his comic book sensibility, he reluctantly acknowledged Singer’s status. He’s the guy who gets to make the multimillion dollar disappointments, Smith shrugs. I’ll always be the Clerks guy. Well, as long as that man continues to create movies like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, there’s nothing really to complain about - at least, from a fan’s viewpoint.

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