Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Since he made his debut with Clerks nearly fifteen years ago, I have had a hate-hate relationship with Kevin Smith. While many of my friends absolutely swear by films like Chasing Amy, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I find them poorly directed and badly written works that I frankly find little or no value in (outside of some of the obviously talented people he always manages to get in front of the camera). Adding to my problem with Kevin Smith is his endless self promotion, his trashing of people and films I admire and his taking the limelight away from many American independent filmmakers that came out of the same period he did. While I admire anyone that can write, edit, act in and direct their own films, I simply have just never liked the work of Kevin Smith.
I pretty much swore off seeing anymore of Smith’s films after the one torturous viewing of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that I subjected myself to years ago, so I was a bit surprised when I found myself in a theater yesterday to see his newest work, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. There were two main reasons that led me to the film and their names are Seth and Elizabeth, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. Terrified that I would have the same miserable experience I have had with his canon in the past, imagine my surprise when I found myself not only enjoying Kevin Smith’s new film but actually admiring it as well.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a sweet, extremely funny and oddly moving little film that won me over almost instantly. There is something also downright maverick feeling about the production, and I have to give it up to Smith for not playing it safe in what is a pivotal moment in his fifteen year career.
As so many folks have noted, there is a major Judd Apatow feel about Smith’s new work and that is not a bad thing, even though some critics have knocked Smith for it. The guy’s no dummy and he had to know that the casting of Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks would lead some folks to accuse him of riding on coattails of the rather astonishing comedic decade Apatow and company have had. The fact is though that no two actors on the planet would have been better suited to the material than Rogan and Banks, and again it is to his credit that Smith was smart enough to cast the best people for the material. Rogan and Banks are just dynamite as the broke and struggling sort of couple who decide to shoot their own little adult film to pay their bills, and the film wouldn’t work without them.
Equally compelling are the supporting cast that Smith surrounds his two brilliant leads with. Nearly stealing the film from Rogan and Banks is Craig Robinson, currently so good as Darryl in The Office, as Zack’s buddy who finances the little film. Also excellent in one or two scene roles are The 40 Year Old Virgin co-star Gerry Bednob, Superman Returns leading man Brandon Routh as Miri’s high school crush she tries to seduce during one of the film’s funniest moments, and a hilarious Justin Long as male adult star Brandon St. Randy (a name that still has me smiling). Most surprising are the performances Smith gets from the film within the film’s cast including a sly and all knowing turn from Traci Lords, two funny and infectious performances from Ricky Mabe and Jason Mewes as well as surprisingly solid work from real life adult star Katie Morgan. Simply put, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is one of the best acted pieces of the year.
Kudos as well to some of the behind the scenes talent such as cinematographer David Klein, who manages to find just the right visual balance between the fantasy world Zack and Miri are trying to create, and the frozen over winter they are struggling to get through in their real lives. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best looking work yet from Smith, not a director typically associated with aesthetically pleasing visuals.
Perhaps what works best for the film is the balance it finds between the somewhat seediness of its subject and the friendship that develops between all the characters in the story. Its finest moments have a real joy, warmth and humanity to them, something that makes the film's more profane moments all the funnier and, on a couple of occasions, all the more shocking.
The film isn’t perfect though and it suffers from several of the problems I have had with all of Smith’s work. Overlong at two hours, and crossing the line from funny to just plain gross on a couple of occasions, Smith’s work mainly suffers from some rather flat direction although he has improved a great deal since his debut. I suspect the DVD will be even longer, and I will be curious to see what a different cut will do for the film. I found it to be close to the great work that many of my friends have been telling me for years that Kevin Smith is capable of. It doesn’t necessarily make me want to revisit his older films, but it makes me look forward to what he will deliver next.
Despite a couple of problems, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a real winner, and stands as one of the oddest and most profanely sweet romantic comedies I have ever seen. Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks are both having inspired years and they turn in near career best turns here. The film is a real coup for Kevin Smith, who has needed a hit for the better part of this decade. While Zack and Miri Make a Porno doesn’t completely make me a believer, I can at least finally nod my head in partial agreement the next time one of my friends tells me how great Kevin Smith is.