Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno



2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for romantic comedy the same way that 2007 wound up being a revival for Westerns. Hot on the heels of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Wall*E” (which is technically a children’s film but calls to mind the great silent romantic comedy “City Lights”), slacker guru Kevin Smith offers up “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” a film that stacked up controversy long before it hit theaters thanks to its provocative title and its tongue-in-cheek posters.

It’s also one of the funniest films of the decade and the perfect blend of Smith’s own “Chasing Amy” and “Clerks II.”

The plot is summed up by the title: Zack and Miri, two lifelong best friends who find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy after letting the bills pile up, decide to get out of debt by making, you guessed it, a porno. Along the way, they recruit a gang of cast and crew, think up erotic film parodies and ultimately confront deeper feelings for each other. On the surface it looks like a standard romantic comedy with a wacky premise, but that doesn’t take into account Smith’s gift for dialogue.

Fans of Smith’s will recognize the vulgar, rapid-fire wit and the pop culture references, but this time around he also injects moments of truly uncomfortable humor that calls the sitcom “The Office” to mind. After all, this is a film about two friends who have to come to terms with how they really feel for one another; awkwardness is part of the equation. Rogen plays his usual schlub, but for the first time you can buy that he’s paired with an impossibly beautiful (and impossibly single) woman.

The characters, from the leads to the supporting cast, are all quirky and interesting. View Askew alumni Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes hold their own against Rogen, the current king of comedy, while newcomer (in America, at least) Ricky Mabe gets a lot of laughs with a handful of screen time. Porn starlet Katie Morgan and infamous ex-porn star Traci Lords show off some surprising chops, and Justin Long’s cameo as a gay porn star is brief but instantly memorable. The best of the supporting cast is Craig Robinson, who steals nearly every scene he’s in as Delaney, the racially sensitive de facto producer of the porno.

The only downside of the film is that it’s looser than Smith’s usual fare, perhaps due to the influx of all these improvisers into the film of a man who prefers his actors stick to the script. As a result, occasionally meanders, and a speech from Robinson near the end is so formulaic and schmaltzy that it’s almost uncomfortable. But, as Roger Ebert noted, Smith throws so many gags at you so rapidly that anything that doesn’t connect is quickly lost beneath three jokes that do. The rapid-fire humor is all the more surprising considering how plot-relevant most of it is; most comedies exist as a series of gags, but this is one long joke.

Probably the most refreshing and surprising aspect of the movie is Miri, and by extension Elizabeth Banks, who is breaking out in a big way this year (“Role Models,” W.”). Females in slacker comedies, be they Smith’s films, Judd Apatow’s, or even the British sitcom “Spaced” are often the focal point of maturity. The ladies will hang out with the dudes, but they always grow up a lot faster. Miri is an exception; she swears with the best of them, avoids work even more studiously than Zack does, and, unlike most female slackers, not only gets the pop culture references but makes some herself. Yet she is also keenly aware of her femininity, another rarity in the slacker world. Miri is, quite simply, the best, most charming, most relatable female character to come along since Daisy from “Spaced.”

Ultimately, the film’s brief lags and the rare moments towards the end where the inevitability of romantic comedy clichĂ© seeps in cannot derail such a continuously uproarious flick, and the surprising chemistry between the two leads and strong supporting cast make this possibly the most outrageous comedy since “There’s Something About Mary.” Any moment that feels stale or awkward is as necessary as the big jokes; the discomfort makes it all the more real and tender, and the romantic dialogue is the most powerful, realistic and original since the dialogue in Smith’s own “Chasing Amy.”

Smith’s most accomplished film yet is a surefire hit, and you’d have to be crazy to miss it. Oh, and sit through the credits.

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