Film

A “Porno” with heart

Kevin Smith finds a successful balance between raunch and sentiment

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For many years, Kevin Smith was the king of the vulgar comedy about arrested male adolescence, the celebration of the directionless, pop-culture-obsessed slacker who somehow always manages to land the beautiful girl. Then along came Judd Apatow, who added sweet, traditional sentimentality to his slacker tales, scored huge hits with the likes of Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and spawned a legion of disciples and imitators. Smith’s own blatantly sentimental mainstream comedy, 2004’s Jersey Girl, had none of the clever dialogue or edgy characters that typified the director’s earlier films, and instead drowned in treacle and corn. He tried again with 2006’s Clerks II, but it too was more hokey than hip, despite prominently featuring a Tijuana donkey show.

The Details

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Three stars
Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson
Directed by Kevin Smith
Rated R
Opens Friday, October 31
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Zack and Miri Make a Porno
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With Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith has fully appropriated both the Apatow aesthetic and one of Apatow’s top collaborators, actor Seth Rogen, while maintaining a hold on what made his own movies distinctive in the first place. Porno is nearly as sappy as Jersey Girl, and easily as predictable as any throwaway mainstream romantic comedy, but its humor has the bite that’s been missing from Smith’s recent work, and the story is less concerned with old-fashioned values than Apatow’s movies have been, even if it leads inevitably to true love between its two main characters.

Those would be roommates and longtime friends Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks, another Apatow alum), both of whom exemplify the Smith/Apatow slacker-hero type: In their mid-20s, they’re still working dead-end retail jobs, their vague life ambitions perpetually deferred. When their inability to pay bills causes their utilities to get shut off, and their 10-year high school reunion reminds them of just how much they haven’t accomplished, the pair decide that the best way to score some quick cash is to make their own low-budget porn. A cell-phone video of Miri in giant panties has become an online sensation, and Zack reasons that people will pay to see pretty much anyone having sex.

So they round up the expected rag-tag band of misfits to help out, including Zack’s coffee-shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) as producer, a few eager exhibitionists as stars and a guy who once shot high-school basketball games as the cinematographer. Zack is the writer and director, and he and Miri are expected to be major players in the movie, except that their plan to have sex on camera when they’ve been “just friends” for years creates a great deal of anxiety.

It’s obvious to anyone that that anxiety comes from the fact that they’re totally in love, and Smith takes the two characters through every requisite rom-com beat on the way to the happy ending. Unlike his complex, ultimately downbeat Chasing Amy (still his best film), Porno doesn’t play around with convention, and it doesn’t mess with the audience’s expectations. But it’s funnier than anything Smith’s done in years, and the humor goes a long way toward distracting from the by-the-numbers plot. As in Clerks II, there’s plenty of vulgarity, but it once again masks a vulnerability and celebration of romance. Unlike Clerks II, though, Porno doesn’t lurch from gross-out gags to gross-out sentiment; the elements fit together much more seamlessly, and Zack and Miri’s romance mostly feels earned and genuine.

It helps that Smith puts the characters on equal footing; unlike Apatow’s idealized love interests, Miri is just as much of an awkward loser as Zack, and they both have to overcome insecurities and self-delusions on the path to love. Rogen and Banks bring a naturalness to Smith’s dialogue that’s entirely new; it probably helps that the director opened himself up to improvisation for the first time. Then again, Rogen improvising his way through a familiar role only emphasizes the Apatow comparisons, and Porno sometimes feels too much like one of the numerous Apatow knock-offs.

It’s not quite a return to form for Smith, then, but it’s hard to say what that form would even be. Promisingly, it’s a tentative step forward, away from the insular world of recurring characters that populated his early films, but not so far into Hollywood as to lose its personality. Somewhere in that middle ground, we have the new breed of Kevin Smith movie.

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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