A film review by Craig J. Koban

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO jjj
½ 

2008, R, 101 mins.

Zack: Seth Rogen / Miri: Elizabeth Banks / Delaney: Craig Robinson / Lester:  Jason Mewes / Deacon:  Jeff Anderson / Bubbles:  Traci Lords / Stacey:  Katie Morgan

Written and directed by Kevin Smith

I have been desperate for money before.  Yes, I have fallen on hard times, like the one moment when I was 12-years-old and I thought that $100 was a small fortune for selling off all of my classic STAR WARS toys (three words: biggest…mistake…ever).  

Then there was a time when I was at a fairly low paying management job and bills were casting a very large and imposing shadow over me.  At this time I decided to sell off some of my very cherished comic books from a collection that I spent a respectable chunk out of my childhood and adolescence obtaining.  When I got that first winning bid on eBay for my AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #59, received the money, and prepared the book for shipment to the buyer, I was nearly in tears.  But, I would have gushed even more if my Visa bill were not paid.

Those desperate levels of seeking quick financial assistance seem incredibly tame in comparison to the levels the chronically destitute characters go to in Kevin Smith's newest comedy.  Apparently given the green light from The Weinstein Company based solely on the title alone, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO is about quintessential Smithian slacker underachievers that have reached their wit’s and monetary end and decide that the only way to get themselves out of an insurmountable economic woes is - as its the film's obvious title blurts out  - to make a pornographic film.

When I was strapped for cash, the thought of fornicating on screen at the thought of a paycheck was the furthest thing from my mind.  Firstly, I don’t have the body and secondly I have…well…pride.  Those two traits are certainly not what Smith’s troubled protagonists have, as they see making an all-out sex flick the key to their salvation.  What makes things a bit more interesting is fact that the hapless pair is comprised of a twenty-something man and woman, BFF’s to one another and nothing beyond that.  Yet, when their power and water gets shut off in their dilapidated Pennsylvanian apartment in the dead of winter – and realizing that they also have no loot for rent – the girl speculates that this is a point in peoples’ live where they either prostitute themselves from money or “get into porn.”  The latter sentiment peaks the interest of the young man, but what really makes him enthusiastic is his plan to not only make a porno (how hard could it be) but to also have him star in it with his female friend for life.

The two friends in question are Zack (Seth Rogen, who after films like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, and KNOCKED UP certainly can claim to being the king of playing chubby and foul mouthed slackers) and Miri (the insatiably fetching Elizabeth Banks, delicately exuding that always difficult combination of raw sex appeal and adorability).  The pair shares a shack of an apartment in a western Pennsylvanian town (not New Jersey, which is Smith’s alma mater and frequent location for most of his previous films).  Zack and Miri are not an item: They have been the best of platonic friends since early grade school.  They have never had sex, let alone be intimate with one another (in Smith’s films, sex is easy, but lasting friendship is a tough to find commodity).  Both are down-on-their luck and have little ambition in life, which certainly hits home for them when they return home one evening and find that most of their utilities are shut off.  Even worse is the fact that Zack just used the last of his money to purchase hockey skates, which now has left the pair no money to even pay for the rent. 

Like all flashes of immoral genius, Zack has a giddy epiphany:  While in a bar drinking his sorrows away with Miri, he jumps up and states that both he as she should star in a low budget porno.  Pornos, after all, are all made on the cheap, do not have professional actors, and basically require a rudimentary ability to have sex.  Plus, Miri has recently made You-Tube headlines with a leaked video of her undressing, exposing panties that would only be worn be a senior citizen.  Zack thinks that Miri’s overnight celeb credit on-line would translate well into a successful porno film.  After some discussion, Miri proves what an incredibly easy-going woman she is by agreeing to participate and have sex with her friend on camera, but with only one promise to be made - they cannot let the sex get to them and affect their friendship.  I dunno, but after looking at Elizabeth Banks for more than a few seconds, I would find it next to impossible to not let having sex with her get to me.

The pair will definitely need help to make their adult starring turns a rousing success.  They enlist the help of a local man that video tapes football games (CLERKS alumni, Jeff Anderson, always funny), and get financial baking from Zack’s co-worker at a Starbucks knockoff they work at named Delaney (Craig Robinson, who plays fidgety and nervous energy to hilarious effect), who at first wants to spend some hard earned and saved money on a big flat screen.  However,  Zack promises him that he’ll see huge returns from the porn’s profits…plus he can serve as producer and casting director, which will allow him to pick random hot women for their…endowments.  A few of the actors (a very, very loose term) he chooses are a couple of low rent professionals, one played by former real life porn star Traci Lords (who demonstrates, in one infamous scene in the film. the single most inventive usage of a movie fart gag ever) and real life Smith hetero-lifemate, Jason Mewes, who certainly has no shame or sense of inflamed ego here.

One thing that is kind of inspired here is how latently autobiographical ZACK AND MIRI is of Smith’s own life as a struggling filmmaker.  Subtle elements of the making of the porn film within the film chiefly echo Smith’s real life making of CLERKS: the fact that the porno is made during the graveyard hours when the store is not open, that Zack uses local acting talent, that the crew uses crude cameras and equipment (like a hockey stick for a boom mike)…all have tangible links to Smith’s own struggles making CLERKS.  The only slight differences are the choice of film made (a bawdy comedy versus a lewd and naught screw flick) and location (a video and convenience store versus a coffee shop, humorously named Bean ‘N’ Gone).  One other aspect that I also appreciated was that this film understands the look and feel of a Pittsburgh winter (this film’s open and simple cinematography captures the frigid environment infinitely better than the big budgeted dud that was MAX PAYNE ever did).

For loving aficionados of Smith’s film universe (I among them), ZACK AND MIRI certainly holds up to his strengths, which is to craft colorful, rhythmic, and unapologetically coarse and vulgar dialogue exchanges around humanistic characters that we attach ourselves to and care about.  Like the CLERKS films and CHASING AMY, Smith overcomes his obvious deficiencies as a visualist by crafting personas that have a real tangible sincerity and earnestness despite the irreproachably tawdry and potty-mouthed conversations they have.   The dialogue is laced with expletives of every imaginable kind (and ones I have amazingly never heard uttered before), but Smith does not use vulgarity to simply shock: There is a kind of inspiring cadence and flow to how his people speak to one another to the point where the offensive words have a scatological poetry to them.  Not only that, but Smith revels in ingenious ways to be mischievous with language. 

Consider one hilarious moment where Zack goes to his high school reunion and meets up with a gay porn star (played in a outstandingly funny cameo by Justin Long).  Zack is unaware of what the man does.  He tells Zack that he’s in all-male films, to which he responds, “You mean like GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS?” to which the actor replies with a remarkably creative and dirtier version of that film’s title, which gets a huge shocking laugh.  Even if one is offended by bad language, there is no denying that Smith is one of the most dexterous screenwriters with using it, and the sheer verbosity of it emerges as giggle inducing.

The MPAA, alas, was not laughing as hard as the audience and I were at ZACK AND MIRI, and they initially slammed the film with an NC-17 not once, but twice.  Smith took the body to task and eventually got the usually obstinate censoring board to repeal the film back to a more marketable R.  What’s kind of funny is that if one looks hard at ZACK AND MIRI, it’s remarkably tame: there is ample nudity, but nothing more graphic and in more detail than most other R-rated films, not to mention that there is no violence or gore in it (which the MPAA always turns a blind eye to).  Moreover, the few love scenes in the movie are played – it needs to be emphasized – for cheeky and awkward laughs and less for steamy eroticism.  Despite the word “porno” being in the title, ZACK AND MIRI is not anything close to one.

Regrettably, the film’s mischievous and whimsical tone has not curbed the controversy around it.  An initial theatric poster for the film (which shows a fully clothed Banks and Rogen in a split screen with the suggestion that oral sex is being performed on them) was banned in all US Cinemas (but not here in the liberal and open-minded Canadian theatres).  A later poster, amusingly only using stick figures, was released that mocked the banning of the first.  Even more inane is the fact that several cinemas in the US are banning the film for fear of its pornographic nature.  Smith is no stranger to controversy (his harmless religious comedy, DOGMA, was picketed by ridiculous Christian fundamentalists as an affront on God) and recently a cinema in Salt Lake City banned the film, with no official explanation being offered by its theatre owner.  Modest research on my part turned up that the same cinema decided that playing orgies of sadistic carnage and gore like SAW V was “okay”.  This theatre, much like the MPAA, shows a prevailing artistic hypocrisy in America that boobies and sexual antics (whether dramatic or comedic) is more of a threat than seeing human beings violently accosted and/or mutilated.  If the people in question even saw the film they may perhaps see that the sexuality in ZACK AND MIRI is done for humorous effect.  Hell, even one of the film’s most crucial sex scenes is filmed with remarkable restraint and poignancy, all done in close ups.

I find it hard how anyone could find overt offence in this film.  The joyously entertaining aspect of ZACK AND MIRI is how adept Smith is at fleshing out his characters and developing them as fully realized personalities, and not just cardboard cutouts at the service of the lewdness of the story (ignorant film fans criticize Smith for cashing in on Judd Apatow’s similar recipe for success, but it was Smith’s films a decade ago that paved Apatow’s way).  The film is rigidly formulaic (it does not take a rocket scientist to see that Zack and Miri will do the deed and come out with all sorts of odd and conflicting feelings, such as the fact that the sex they had was more like “making love” and that the pair seems destined to be a couple and not just friends).  All of that is routine, but Smith’s razor sharp and quick-witted dialogue elevate the material (the laughs are as frequent and hearty as any comedy I’ve seen in 2008), and – most crucially – the film has a soft and moving sentimental heartbeat with its characters.  Rogen is so deceptively effective playing raunchy, but likeable, doofuses with an easy-going affability and palpable charm, and Banks does such a thanklessly great job of playing her character with genuineness and spunky appeal: Rogen and her have pitch perfect comic timing and chemistry, and I defy anyone to think of a more naturally beautiful female star that the camera loves more than Banks.  The screen just glows whenever she smiles on screen.   

As far as the Kevin Smith canon goes, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO falls a bit shy of his best dramedies (like JERSEY GIRL and the terribly undervalued CHASING AMY), but it is classic Smith at his smartest, lewdest, and most authentic.  The film achieves its status quo of debauchery, but it also truthfully goes for more than just being a R-rated marathon of gratuitous sleaze.  Smith wants to shock and make us laugh, but the real spirit and heart behind all of those F-bombs and X-rated banter is a warmth, sweetness, and camaraderie he shows with his characters.  This film is dirty, but it’s really endearing and tender with its distressed characters.  Smith legitimately cares about the people that occupy his movie universes, which is what allows for his films to frequently rise above the tasteless veneer of a disposable and exploitative sex comedies. 

Oh…before I forget…this film does in fact have one money shot in it, but not what you’d be expecting.  Note to all would-be porn directors:  Be careful – very careful ­– how you shoot your porn actress after she complains to you about being constipated.  Trust me on this.

  H O M E