REVIEW – Zack and Miri Make a Porno

zackmiriI’m of two minds about so-called ‘gross-out’ films. Part of me deplores them for reducing mainstream comedy to something reliant on shattering an endless series of glass ceilings of vulgarity, reaching the point where even the presence of a botched sex act or poorly targeted faeces is supposed to be funny by default, presented like some feckless museum exhibit. On the other hand, such films can be hugely entertaining in their liberation when there is some wit involved, and it’s tempting to defend these rare exceptions against critics who write them off entirely for the mere presence of such material, whether it is well-deployed or not.

Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno is such a film, with a title that almost baits critics into having preconceptions in order to upend them. However, Smith has not always employed vulgar comedy in the most successful way. Clerks II, a throwback effort that embodied Smith’s mid-career timidity, placed the characters from the micro-budgeted, conversational 1994 original into a slightly larger canvass where a performer having sex with a donkey and a supporting character masturbating to the sight was apparently seen by Smith as a natural development and emblematic of 30-something life. Although his trademark arcs of characters angsting their way into a better life were still present, the whole project stunk of desperation and narrow thinking, best exemplified by Smith casting his non-actor wife in a major role and having one character stop the film to recite a poorly-rationalised spiel about why the Lord of the Rings films sucked compared to Star Wars, a spiel virtually repeating verbatim Smith’s own public pronouncements on the matter. Jersey Girl, Smith’s first venture outside of the loosely-connected ‘Askewniverse’ and into a less cult mode was so savaged that he was incapable of just giving variety another shot via a different method. Hence Clerks II.

Thankfully, the tepid critical reaction to that film has galvanised the director into giving it another shot, albeit with one foot still in the warm bath. Signing Seth Rogen – who could have done any comedy he wanted after Knocked Up – was the first good sign, as was the news that this was not part of the Askew series. The result is a vulgar comedy with a surprisingly sweet and moralistic purpose, perhaps even Smith’s commentary that our culture’s sex-obsession may be wrong-headed despite his own many embodiments of it in his work.

Set once again in New Jersey, the film follows Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), 20-something lifelong friends and housemates working small-time jobs and enjoying their convenient platonic relationship. When Zack’s impulsive spending brings them to the brink of destitution with a house lacking power and water, his meeting a gay porn star (Justin Long) at their high school reunion gives him a brainwave – they could earn money making their own porn film. While initially reluctant, Miri agrees, and they hesitantly decide to have sex on camera themselves, despite believing they have no interest in each other. They assemble a group of friends, strippers, and sexually talented ‘actors’ and begin filming.

As expected, Zack and Miri, endearingly played by Rogen and Banks, must confront their latent feelings for each other. Although a conventional plot arc, when inserted into a bizarre concept like amateur porn to make money rather than something hideously conventional, it somehow becomes fresh and even a little incisive. The film is sexually frank throughout, not holding back, and by running the gauntlet and showing sex at its most raw, Smith emerges with the question of ‘what about sex as intimacy rather than solely gratification?’ Why must these be apparently two separate concepts, with sexual love being depicted as almost boring in a media hellbent on titillation? By having the characters utterly at ease with sex as an entertaining, provocative, and constant conversation topic, Smith is able to raise the question without being accused of being sentimental and chaste. And even after the plot takes this turn, he still mines sex for its funny side so that the film is meaningful without being self-important.

This attitude is greatly assisted by Zack and Miri looking like a slick product. This is not shot in a pedestrian fashion with occasional amateurish acting, like Clerks II. The performances are charismatic and entertaining, the cinematography strong, helping Smith to shake his (self-confessed) reputation as a bland visual storyteller. He has cast well, with The Office’s Craig Robinson terrifically deadpan as Zack’s co-worker and reluctant money-man Delaney and Justin Long tremendous as an arrogant, overly dramatic porn star partnered with Brandon Routh, whose performance would do great things to overturn his squeaky-clean image as Superman if anyone actually remembered that he was in that film (I say that with sympathy for Routh. He’s fairly engaging and doesn’t deserve the embarrassment that the lack of major deals following the then-most expensive film ever and speculation about a never-gonna-happen sequel has caused him).

Having thought Smith would never again reach the heights of Chasing Amy, a film that excelled with the creative limitations of a low-budget, I’m relieved to see that there is hope for him to return as a major voice for youth in cinema. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is touching, tender, and hilarious, if you have a high tolerance for gross-out comedy. But please, Kevin, move on from Star Wars humour. It’s getting old.

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