I had openly hoped on this page last week that Kevin Smith, master promoter, perhaps less than a master filmmaker, might have come up with a movie that would be worth talking about a week after its release instead of just the week before. Well, it’s my sad duty to report that Zack and Miri Make a Porno may be an even bigger disappointment than the smug, inept Clerks 2 because, ostensibly, Smith is not simply coasting here on past laurels but supposedly striking out in new territory. However, Zack and Miri feels desperately old-hat, and not only just for a Kevin Smith movie but for one made by Judd Apatow too, of which this potty-mouthed, envelope-stretching romance is but a pale imitation. David Edelstein aptly suggested in his review that Smith has overextended his cleverness beyond his ability to write blue banter with this movie by openly aping Apatow’s approach. Irony being ironical and all, it was Smith movies like Clerks and Chasing Amy that paved the way for Apatow's bromantical escapades. Now Smith finds himself in the unenviable position of creating a milquetoast shadow within in the shadow of a filmmaker who has basically eclipsed his own single-minded take on modern heterosexual relationships. (That Apatow and the whole outrageous-comedy-with-a-sentimental-heart-of-mush syndrome is already, just two short years after the release of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, teetering on the brink of cliché, speaks volumes.)
Best friends and slackers nonpareil Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), faced with a Pittsburgh winter and no electricity, lights or running water due to their inability to pay their utility bills, decide to dabble in the sex trade and make a porno, which they are convinced will be their ticket to, if not fortune, then at least keeping a roof over their head. They recruit a motley crew of compatriots, including ex-porn royalty Traci Lords, as well as Smith regulars Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes, and vow to film themselves having meaningless sex, an activity these two platonic pals have avoided their entire lives, in service to their dire financial straits. But long before I got annoyed at the obvious trajectory of what will happen when our two foul-mouthed protagonists finally copulate (what’s the over-under on them discovering how they really feel about each other?), it became apparent that Smith himself was operating on autopilot. A large portion of the movie is devoted to tossing out possible names for their porn epic (none of which are half as funny as the ones bandied about in the original Clerks) and then to an extremely tired and uninspired porn parody of Star Wars, and it’s all only slightly less funny than the average Mad magazine movie satire. (If the utterance Star Whores and endless plays on character names like Princess Lay-her tend to slay you, then by all means buy your ticket now.) After production on the actual movie resumes—the Star Whores soundstage is demolished and the porno becomes a far less ambitious affair shot after hours in the coffee house where Zack ekes out a living—we’re left with nothing for the movie to do but bombard us with F-bombs and other sundry, overly clever nasties while we wait for Zack and Miri to reveal its creamy center.
Turns out that’s plenty of time to think about how much flack Smith has taken for his one true attempt to do something different within his oeuvre—the unfairly maligned Jersey Girl-- and how much slack he’s been cut for just about everything else since Dogma. I appreciated Smith’s attempt to take his sensibility, born of his new experience as a father, in a different direction than his carefully cultivated fan base might expect. And the reaction—tainted by the tabloid response to stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez and their affair, and by the perceived notion that Smith had made a mealy family picture with no place for the fanboys to dig in their dirty nails—assured the movie’s quick and painless box-office death. But, speaking as a previously enthusiastic fan of Smith who even enjoyed the inside-out navel gazing of the relatively clunky (for a Smith joint) Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, it has to be fairly evident that ever since Dogma, a picture I still admire for its engagement with some serious subject matter not usually found within the body-function purview of most modern American comedy, Smith has been cruising-- on Clerks and on his own rep as a raconteur. (The Evening with Kevin Smith DVD series is enough to test even the biggest fan’s constitution— by the release of An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder I had happily left the director’s self-generating cult of personality behind.)
And I think it’s high time to hold Smith’s feet to the same fire that Diablo Cody’s were held (I being one of the primary inquisitors) in regard to the screenwriter’s much-lauded ability to write dialogue. Clerks had a profane jauntiness that influenced an entire generation of film writers, in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino did. But with each subsequent movie Smith’s writing has become further entrenched in that Jersey-fied, self-referential, insular universe, and it’s becoming readily apparent that Smith is incapable of writing characters that don’t sound like himself and his chatterbox buddies, each one at the ready with some wild and crazy variation on “cocksucker” or “fudge-packer,” but bereft of a smidgen of individuality or personality that might leaven the effect of the obscenities and give someone other than a card-carrying member of the Movie Poop Shoot faithful a pathway into the movie. All of this casts an interesting light on the movie’s ultimate box-office reception. The $10.5 million opening for Zack and Miri may or may not be a career highlight for Smith—on some level I take a certain pride in not knowing—but it must irk Smith, so proud in the parading of his characters’ crassest tendencies, that his movie got beat by a week-old Disney musical. And I’d be curious if he wonders at all, given his professed confidence in Zack and Miri as his most commercially viable project yet, whether or not general audiences have not offered a referendum of indifference re the Smith worldview, certainly in comparison to Apatow’s. (Even the relatively tepid and tepid-performing Forgetting Sarah Marshall made more of a splash than Zack and Miri seems poised to generate.) Could it be that commercial concerns might ultimately force this most complacent of directors to finally strike out in a new direction?