‘Zack and Miri Make A Porno’ and it turns out to be a romantic comedy

October 30, 2008

The controversy about “Zack and Miri Make A Porno” could have been predicted: the refusal by the priggish MPAA to allow posters that suggest – suggest! – oral sex. And now the outcry over the word “porno” in the title. (Luckily, Porno for Pyros no longer has much cultural currency.)

 

But the real controversy should be over the film itself: specifically, that Kevin Smith’s comedy suffers from the law of diminishing returns. The longer it goes on, the less funny it gets.

 

Which is too bad, because no one does wildly vulgar humor better than Kevin Smith. Someday, “Clerks II” will be recognized for the outrageously hilarious masterpiece that it is – a sequel that delivers on and surpasses the promise of the original.

 

But “Zack and Miri” ultimately cops out to its romantic-comedy impulses, jettisoning its wide-open attitude for more conventional movie-making. Not that people don’t say “fuck” every other sentence – but Smith’s preternatural knack for creating the same sort of vulgar music out of obscenities that someone like Richard Pryor once did seems to escape him.

 

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play the title characters, two lifelong friends in inhospitable Pittsburgh who now share a busted-out house together. Ten years removed from high school, they both feel squashed by life, trapped in deadbeat jobs and barely making ends meet.

 

After a dispiriting trip to their high school reunion (where the hot guy Miri lusted for in high school turns out to now be a gay porn star), they come home to find that their water and electricity have been turned off for nonpayment. A chance encounter with the YouTube generation sparks the idea: We’ll make a porno film, sell it online and cash in.

 

Smith has fun with the set-up, blending the bizarre personalities of Zack and Miri’s friends – including the hilarious Craig Robinson, “Clerks” alumnus Jeff Robinson and former porn star Traci Lords – with a delicious “Star Wars” premise (“Star Whores”).

 

But when that proves unworkable, they have to improvise – and wind up shooting at night at the Starbucks-like coffee shop where Zack works. The climax, as it were, is the on-camera encounter between Zack and Miri, who have always been platonic pals (but obviously have harbored unspoken feelings for each other for a long time).

 

It’s at this point that “Zack and Miri” loses its way, as Smith dives into the conventions of romantic comedy. They can’t tell each other how they really feel; there’s a misunderstanding about Zack hooking up with another cast member; blah blah blah.

 

Smith obviously wants to blend the two sensibilities: the cynical young dude who takes nothing too seriously and the adult who recognizes that, at some point, you have to face your own feelings. But the seams show and, worse, the jokes disappear.

 

I will confess to enjoying several big laughs during “Zack and Miri.” But the intervals between them seemed to grow the longer the film went on. There were too many moments when I felt poised to laugh, when I smiled rather than chuckling.

 

I like Rogen’s shlub persona and his delivery – but he needs to find another set of comic harmonics or he’ll turn into a one-note screen presence. Banks, with her fresh-scrubbed look, is a comedy discovery, sort of a blonde Parker Posey with a less knowing attitude.

 

“Zack and Miri” isn’t exactly Kevin Smith’s bid for the mainstream – not with the explosive poop joke that breaks things up midway through. But when it loses its anything-goes attitude, it also loses the comedy thread. And that’s too bad.

 

 

 

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