Zack and Miri Make a Porno

It should come as no surprise that Kevin Smith’s new movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno isn’t really about making a porno. Sure, the eponymous characters Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), twentysomethings subsisting platonically in a ratty Monroeville apartment, do decide to put together a quickie piece of adult cinema to pay the bills. And yes, they follow through on this scheme. But Smith, the writer-director behind such amiably raunchy comedies as Clerks and Dogma, is a romantic sheep in wolf’s clothing, and the raunchiness usually always points toward gentler feelings.

Zack and Miri can also be taken, on some level, as Smith’s love letter to filmmaking. A motley crew, including “producer” Delaney (scene-stealing Craig Robinson) and “cameraman” Deacon (Jeff Anderson), moves heaven and earth to get a shabby-looking DIY flick in the can. This is pretty much the story of Smith’s $25,000 debut Clerks, which was shot in a convenience store where Smith worked at the time, much like the eventual porno filmed after hours at Zack’s Starbucks-like workplace.

The problem for Smith when he goes mooshy is that, like many another male scripter, he can’t really write women. Elizabeth Banks cashes in all her considerable charm as Miri, but she’s stuck in a lot of unplayable scenes (like the one at the class reunion where she drunkenly tries to seduce a classmate who turns out to be gay), and the movie has very little curiosity about Miri. Unless I blinked and missed it — or else it made so little impression that it didn’t register with me — we don’t even find out where she works. And I’d say she agrees to have sex on camera a little too readily. Smith writes the ideal women to hang out with but doesn’t quite know who they are.

Despite that, Zack and Miri plays well enough as an affectionate farce about what people will do to keep the lights and water on. It’s not an entirely credible scenario — with the amount of porn available for free online, who’s going to pay for a copy of Zack and Miri’s porno? — but it works as a metaphor for desperation in the current bleak economy. For the supporting cast, Smith brings in such secret weapons as Jason Mewes (as Lester the eager porn star) and actual porn queens Traci Lords and Katie Morgan. The movie plays like a conflation of John Waters’ last two efforts — 2000’s ode to guerrilla filmmaking Cecil B. DeMented and 2004’s fetishistic A Dirty Shame. The Kevin Smith gutter chat comes fast and furious, possibly expanding the parameters of how much raunchy dialogue one can pack into a film and still keep an R rating. It’s a companionable enough experience, even though the title should really be Zack Makes a Porno (with Miri). It takes two to tango, Kev. Maybe next time Smith will recruit a female screenwriter as good-hearted yet filthy-minded as he is, and he’ll really have something.

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