Film Review: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Leave it to big softie Kevin Smith to make the cuddliest porno flick of all time.

Here's the dark secret behind writer/director/geek icon Kevin Smith's oeuvre: Beneath all the rampant swearing, graphic sex talk and in-your-face scatological humor, his movies are—gasp!—deeply moral stories. No matter how askew things get in Smith's View Askewniverse (the setting of six out of his eight features), you can always count on seeing the good folks rewarded, the bad ones humiliated, and the power of friendship overcoming the toughest of obstacles. Hell, even his most controversial film—1999's Dogma—ends up reaffirming the existence of a Divine Creator…albeit in the form of a certain Canadian pop singer.

This isn't intended as a slam on Smith, by the way. Quite the opposite; his good-heartedness is a big part of his charm, both as a filmmaker and a media personality. At the same time, however, it has kept Smith from challenging himself to mine more emotionally complex territory; the closest he came was 1997's Chasing Amy, which still wrapped up its star-crossed love story a little too neatly.

Given Smith's history, it's no big surprise that the most daring thing about his latest production, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, is its title. But don't take that to mean you can bring the kids—the erstwhile Jersey boy still makes full use of the film's R rating, adding full-frontal nudity (including his first-ever penis shot, courtesy of longtime friend Jason "Jay" Mewes) and an ill-timed on-camera bowel movement (which gives a whole new context to the infamous "ass to mouth" debate from Clerks II) to his usual stable of hilariously sophomoric tricks. At the end of the day, though, these antics are just window dressing for yet another routine romantic comedy about a pair of platonic pals who discover that, deep down, they really wuv each other.

If you hadn't already guessed it from the movie's title, the names of these buddies are Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), two underachieving twenty-something wage slaves not entirely unlike the eponymous clerks of the film that rocketed Smith to stardom. The key difference between Dante and Randal and Zack and Miri, of course, is that one of them is a chick and rom-com conventions dictate that it's impossible for a heterosexual guy and girl to remain "just friends" for very long. (Come to think of it, this movie would have been far more interesting had Smith followed the usual romantic-comedy format but titled it Dante and Randal Make a Porno instead.)

Sure enough, the perpetually cash-strapped duo starts to feel the first stirrings of love not long after launching a new moneymaking scheme: homemade pornography. Recruiting an amateur cast and crew from their working-class Pittsburgh ’hood—including producer Delaney (Craig Robinson), lead actor Lester (Mewes) and actresses Bubbles and Stacey (played respectively by former porn star Traci Lords and current skin-flick queen Katie Morgan)—Zack and Miri throw themselves wholeheartedly into their new profession. They are so committed to this project, which begins its life as a Star Wars parody (this is a Kevin Smith movie, after all) before morphing into a multiple-partners marathon set in a Starbucks-style coffee joint, they decide to perform the film's centerpiece sex scene. As it turns out, knocking boots on camera is the easy part. What's not so simple is confessing your love to your best friend.

Chasing Amy
aside, Smith has always been pretty vanilla when it comes to male/female romance, and the relationship at the center of Zack and Miri is no exception. Happily married family man that he is, the filmmaker seems reluctant to consider the possibility that people can have no-strings-attached sex without immediately wanting to become life partners. But the movie never makes a strong case for why these characters belong together except that the genre demands it. That's particularly true for Miri, whose attraction to lazy curmudgeon Zack never makes a lot of sense. Banks does her best to convince us otherwise in a sharp, funny performance, but she can't overcome Smith's lazy writing, which forces Miri to go gaga over her friend as soon as he shows an ounce of initiative. (Because that's what really turns women on—schlubby guys who finally get off their asses long enough to write and direct a porn movie!) Rogen's phoned-in star turn further weakens the romantic chemistry; coming on the heels of his underwhelming work in Pineapple Express, the actor is making a strong case for why he needs to stick to supporting roles for a while.

Speaking of supporting roles, Zack and Miri's bright spot is its below-the-title cast, who score the bulk of the movie's scattered laughs. While the quick-witted Robinson deserves the MVP award, Mewes, Morgan and a game Brandon Routh (sending up his Superman image as a former high-school jock turned closeted celebrity) enjoy some memorable moments as well and overall seem to be having much more fun than either of the film's stars. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Smith goes through the paces efficiently enough; in fact, on a purely technical level, this is his most assured piece of direction since the much-maligned Jersey Girl. The funny thing is that for all the drubbing that admittedly imperfect film took at the time of its release, it was actually a bolder departure for Smith than anything in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Jersey Girl at least forced Smith to step outside his comfort zone—this one finds him coasting along, recycling material we've seen too many times before.