Kevin Smith goes hardcore with Zack and Miri Make a Porno

click to enlarge FROM CASH-STRAPPED TO STRAP-ONS: Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are roommates who resort to making blue movies in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. - The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company
FROM CASH-STRAPPED TO STRAP-ONS: Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are roommates who resort to making blue movies in Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Watching Kevin Smith's excellent Zack and Miri Make a Porno, I kept wondering how the movie got an R rating. Thre plot, about down-on-their-luck roommates who decide to shoot some amateur porn to pay the bills, is risqué by Hollywood standards. The characters speak in waves of profanity, engaging in frequent and detailed discussions of sex of all kinds (but mostly the anal variety). There is ample nudity, including repeated depictions of people bumping uglies in ways that go beyond the typical softly lit missionary. The MPAA originally balked and Smith was forced to argue his case before the censors. That the director managed to pull the stick out of the ass of the ratings board is a minor Tinseltown miracle.

If you think I'm being melodramatic, please note that 15 newspapers and several TV stations refused to carry advertising for the film just because of the titular "porno." Hell, even the flick's poster was banned as obscene. But don't let all the controversy distract you from the film itself. Zack and Miri Make a Porno turns out to be Smith's best film since 1997's Chasing Amy and represents a return to the latter's winning mix of profane comedy and sexual politics.

Title characters Zack and Miri (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) are childhood friends living together platonically in a shitty two-bedroom apartment. The pair is broke, and their desperation builds with each disconnected utility. After a confluence of events that includes Miri turning up on YouTube in her "granny panties" and a raucous high school reunion (including piss-yourself laughing cameos by Justin Long and Brandon Routh), Zack strikes upon a brilliant idea: Let's make a porno movie!

This isn't your standard amateur quickie. Zack writes a script based on a certain Hollywood blockbuster from a galaxy far, far away, gets funding from his coffee-shop co-worker cum film producer (the excellent Craig Robinson), rents space to shoot and hires a cast. The stars of the movie-within-a-movie include longtime Smith collaborator Jason Mewes, current porn star Katie Morgan and ex-porn star Traci Lords. All three display more acting chops then you might imagine, especially Morgan — though her subtler moments are often obscured by her gargantuan and frequently bare breasts.

Much will be made of the film's raunch factor, and that's understandable. Though part of Smith's pitch to the MPAA was presenting comparable explicit scenes from past R-rated movies, it's hard to recall any single film that's been this pervasively foul. More than the ample sex and nudity (which are played mostly for laughs), or even the graphic scene in which one character takes a massive, ill-timed dump on another, it's Zack and Miri's dialogue that is unrelentingly over-the-top.

Smith has been known for his explicit words since his debut film Clerks was the first movie awarded an NC-17 exclusively due to language. From an early exchange on vibrator usage being tantamount to fucking a machine to a bare-assed Jason Mewes explaining the intricacies of the "Dutch Rudder" (look it up), Zack and Miri's dialogue is uniformly inventive and hilarious.

Despite all the potty humor, the film is really a rather sweet and conventional romantic comedy. Sure, it's one of those often-annoying movies where the guy and gal are obviously meant to be together but spend the whole film avoiding this obvious truth. Rogen and Banks are appealing enough that you're liable to forgive the film its plot machinations.

In truth, Rogen's stoner persona is starting to get crusty. Once again, he's the shlubby-but-endearing slacker whose charm outshines his sarcasm, and though Rogen perfectly inhabits the Zack character, it would be wise for him to try something different next. Following Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and now Zack and Miri, Rogen needs to put out the doobie and smoke out a serious role.

Banks, on the other hand, is tasked with the more difficult part and manages to repeatedly convey the deeper underlying emotion of an absurd situation with nothing more that a subtle look. Ultimately, it's Banks that gives Zack and Miri its heart.

Smith has always been known as a writer first and director second. It's time to retire this attitude for good. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is Smith's best-looking work to date and benefits from lessons learned on past films — especially the underrated Jersey Girl. Still, it's reassuring that despite the maturation of his camera work, editing and production values, Smith's writing is just as gloriously juvenile as ever.

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