Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno—his first film to take place outside of New Jersey (in Pittsburgh) and second to depart from the View Askewniverse (along with Jersey Girl)—is an easy movie to enjoy: it’s funny and raunchy, sweet and touching, clever and sarcastic. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are both great as the titular characters, showing us people we can relate to who happen to get themselves wound up in a crazy scheme to pay off their debts and get their utilities turned back on. Said scheme—as you just might have guessed—is to make and star in their own porno movie. From here, I guarantee you that almost all of the assumptions you make about the remainder of the movie are going to be correct. As I said, it’s easy to enjoy, but it certainly is predictable.
There are several things that Smith does well, starting with the frank and snappy dialogue that we’ve come to expect from him. There are a few pleasant surprises here that are somewhat unexpected, too, like more sophisticated camera movements from cinematographer Dave Klein than we’ve seen in previous collaborations between the two (although they showed signs of this development in Clerks II). Smith, as director and editor, still prefers the most basic of styles, though, as has been his low-budget trademark throughout his career: characters speaking to each other are either seen in a simple two-shot, or are cut between in basic medium shots that alternate along with the lines of dialogue. This isn’t supposed to be a very visually stimulating movie, though, the ample screentime of pornstar Katie Morgan and a full-frontal view of Jason Mewes notwithstanding.
Smith’s writing seems to have actually devolved with this iteration, perhaps as a result of moving out of his Askewniverse comfort zone. The basic storyline here is almost identical to that of Clerks II, but more simplified: instead of the main character (Dante in the earlier film) having multiple relationship complications to resolve (with his best friend, his fiancée, and his lover), here we have Rogen as Zack who faces but a single relationship problem (he’s in love with his best friend Miri, and she with him). The storytelling is remarkably linear throughout, in fact—which isn’t really out of the ordinary for a Kevin Smith film—and the simplicity of the structure, complications, and resolutions make it all feel much less mature than we’d expect from an experienced writer-director’s 8th film. The most obvious similarity to Clerks II comes with the “shock moment” that signals the arrival of the final act, an attempt by Smith to gross out his audience amidst all of the raunchy dialogue and debauched plot with a sight gag, which occurs while his main character is having a personal revelation (sound familiar?). As with the rest of the film, though, this is a simplified version of the similar sequence in Clerks II, involving a shorter setup and a much shorter payoff (somewhat famously, a 12-frame half second) with none of the inter-character resolution occurring simultaneously.
This isn’t to suggest that Zack and Miri (as the prudish ads and showtime listings call it) is necessarily a bad film; it’s just not that great, and feels like more of a retread of familiar ground than a movie with such a seemingly unique premise should. There are some areas that Smith handles surprisingly well, most prominently a love scene that is shockingly touching and might be the lone signal here of his maturation as a writer and director. Banks repeats a Julianne Moore line from Boogie Nights, giving it a totally different connotation here that embodies the scene so well it almost spoils the rest of the movie, so thoroughly do we get what’s going on (and will go on as the movie proceeds) between her character and Rogen’s. It’s a really nice moment, highlighted by the use of a Live song that fits perfectly, as Smith’s knack for highlighting his material with popular 90s music continues.
No discussion of this movie can be complete without mention of Craig Robinson, who’s seemed to show up as a backseat character a lot over the past couple of years (e.g., Knocked Up, Pineapple Express) but here gets to take a step into the foreground, and provides an extra dimension to the humor of the film, which helps round it out a bit. Smith uses his presence to try his hand at racial humor for the second consecutive film, and the result is acceptable, although nothing as shockingly funny as Randal’s “porch monkey” diatribe.
In fact, in several ways this movie is toned down by Kevin Smith standards, perhaps as an attempt—whether conscious or not—to open himself up to more of a mainstream audience, undoubtedly helped by the wider appeal of his stars, particularly Rogen (although from the trailers I saw preceding this film, I’m pretty sure Banks is set to go on a mid-90s Tommy Lee Jones type of run, appearing in no fewer than six movies this year). It’s the lack of creativity that is the most disappointing, an area in which Smith has never had trouble exceeding expectations previously (it’s hard to believe that Star Whores was really the best he could come up with for a fictional porn title). And while I don’t want to give away how the film is resolved (although I highly doubt that it’ll come as a surprise to anyone), let me just say, as an example of the sort of half-assed writing that is occasionally on display here, that if you find yourself wondering “why?” when the “Three Months Later” card comes up, you’re not alone. The best hope is that you’ll have spent enough time laughing by that point that you won’t care enough to be upset by it. Which, fortunately, is somewhat likely.