With 1990s films such as Clerks and Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith pioneered the kind of tender raunch that, under Judd Apatow, has come to dominate American comedy. As Apatow himself once put it, “Kevin Smith laid down the track.” Now, though, the train has left the station and, like everyone else, Smith is desperately trying to climb back aboard. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater testament to Apatow’s cultural hegemony than the fact that even the isolated comedies released these days that he neither produced, co-wrote, nor directed strive so mightily to look as if he did.
The latest Apatowannabe is Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a movie whose plot is summed up pretty comprehensively in its six-word title. Their water and electricity cut off in the midst of a chilly Pittsburgh winter, best-friend roommates Zack (Apatow regular Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) adopt the amateur adult route to paying their bills. They assemble a motley cast (including Smith veteran Jason Mewes and porn veteran Traci Lords). They agree to have sex on camera. And they agree they won’t let it alter their friendship. Only one of the two agreements is kept.
This skeletal narrative is, of course, primarily an excuse for 100 minutes of sex jokes. Some are pretty funny: an early riff on masturbation accessories; a cameo by an unsettlingly baritone Justin Long as a gay porn star; a Mewes demonstration of the “double Dutch rudder.” (Don’t ask unless you’re certain you want to know.) Most of the jokes, however, are not--and are risqué only by the most adolescent standard: the revelation of how “Bubbles” (Lords) got her nickname (shades of the original Emmanuelle, for anyone who remembers that far back); the strap-on-assisted role reversal of male and female pornsters; the discussion, and later demonstration, of anal sex as a remedy for constipation. After much debate over what they should title their sci-fi porn epic, Zack and Miri have their eureka moment with “Star Whores,” a pun so original that a google search clocks in at over 60,000 unrelated hits, including at least two pre-existing erotic films.
As befits the cinematic zeitgeist, this is all intended to have a sweet smuttiness, the touching story of two friends who only come to realize they are in love with one another the moment they have sex in front of a camera, and their friends, for money. This tender tale, sadly, is even more half-hearted--quarter-hearted perhaps?--than the dirty jokes that adorn it. Zack and Miri’s relationship unfolds with all the subtlety of a flow chart--the nervous anticipation of their erotic endeavor, the fraught negotiations over who will sleep with whom in the film, the revelatory roll in the hay, the subsequent jealousies, etc. The bids at emotional truth ring so hollow they make you wish Smith had stuck to filthy farce.
There’s a hasty, half-finished quality to the whole enterprise, as if it was thrown together with as little care as “Star Whores.” When, for instance, Seth watches the video of his carnal encounter with Miri, the footage is shot from a wildly different angle than the one we watched it being shot from. (A warning for the prurient: Both are entirely tame. For all its advertised daring, Zack and Miri exposes its stars far less than the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)
And though it is a tiresome necessity, it does bear mentioning that the pairing of Rogen and Banks in a (theoretically) sexy comedy is wildly out of balance, and not merely in terms of literal body mass. In Rogen’s last such mismatched romance, with the comely Katherine Heigl in Apatow’s Knocked Up, the obvious disparity in physical attractiveness was at least clearly acknowledged. Here, though, writer-director Smith seems intent on forcing it to go the other way altogether. Banks is a pretty enough actress that Smith’s decision to saddle her character with sexual desperation and hopelessness seems not only ridiculous but vaguely mean-spirited. So, too, the look of pure religious ecstasy she wears after her coupling with Rogen, and the tear-stained joy with which she welcomes him back near the end of the film. These are a man’s idea of what a woman in love is supposed to look like. (Rogen, by contrast, is allowed to enjoy his excellent fortune with characteristically wry good cheer.)
Kevin Smith may have begat Judd Apatow. But where Apatow has found ways, at least intermittently, to mine deeper emotions in his movies, Smith doesn’t offer much beyond a parade of off-color jokes that no longer seem even slightly provocative. It’s one thing for a movie to be dirty; it’s another thing altogether for it to be plain sloppy.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.
By Christopher Orr