Overloaded on unpaid bills? So are Pittsburgh roomies Zack and Miri. Longtime friends, the duo find themselves on the brink of economic disaster even as they queue up for their ten-year high school reunion. Clearly, it's time to make a change. When a chance meeting with a gay porn star turns on the light bulb over Zack's head, the friends embark on an adventure in filmmaking that's not so dissimilar from Kevin Smith's own self-starting big break making the indie sensation Clerks.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno is so squarely in Smith's wheelhouse that it's a wonder the writer-director didn't think of it earlier. Then again, perhaps only the rise of Judd Apatow and the casting of Seth Rogen as Zack could make this risqué comedy sound like a good financial bet. Elizabeth Banks plays Miri, a young woman realistic enough to feel desperate about her plight (and her dating life) and to regard Zack's plan with skepticism. "If it's so easy," she asks, "why doesn't everyone do it?" "Other people have options," Zack replies. "And dignity." That Miri agrees to the porn scheme requires the ol' willing suspension of disbelief, but it also enables a movie that signals a return to funny for Smith.
He gets a lot of help from a distinctive supporting cast. Smith-and Zack and Miri-round up a wacky cast of characters to star in and shoot the porno: old hands Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson (that's Silent Bob and Randal from Smith's "View Askewniverse" films), porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan, and Craig Robinson of The Office, who steals the show. Brandon Routh and Justin Long also show up for uproarious cameos (Routh plays "Bobby Long," which you just know is a John Travolta joke). The movie lives and dies by the leads, though, and they prove endearingly sweet and funny.
True to form, Smith can be indulgent here, leading to the odd dry stretch (a tiresome geek-out digression into Star Wars porn, for one). Despite the unevenness, this guaranteed cult comedy has the potential to be a breakout hit, in its humor and its heart. Smith scores early, with Robinson delivering an amusing rant about having to work on retail's infamous "Black Friday," soon followed by the slightly obnoxious but undeniably funny, improv-inflected turn by Justin Long (with Routh game as his good-natured foil) and the arrival of the blithely sexual amateur porn star Lester (a happily healthy Mewes, branching out successfully from his stock "Jay" character). Smith freshens up the porn title game (Miri: "Lawrence of a Labia!" Zack: "Dawn of the Dick!") and the character of the lascivious producer (Robinson, lamenting, "I just wanted to see free titties...There's no such thing as free titties"); more importantly, he bends the comedy's realism without breaking it, allowing a story in which we'll buy that the heroes start a garbage-can fire in their living room.
The comic caricatures surrounding Zack and Miri conversely make the heroes seem more...fleshed out. The non-romantic intimates have a plan: they'll have sex for expediency's sake, but nothing's going to change. And I have a bridge (to nowhere) to sell you. Aside from her unlikely beauty, Banks allows herself to look bad (desperate and giddy with an old crush, flaunting reactionary jealousy) to demonstrate Miri's knowledge that she's at a crossroads in her life and can't afford to screw it up. As the archetypal slacker male, Rogen's Zack is slower on the uptake when it comes to the import of the moment, but the actor's naturalistic performance (that pothead laugh) proves equally effective. Together, the two give the film a crucial sincerity that's no more corny than the next romantic comedy. For the most part, what Smith offers is a sight more psychologically penetrating, if you'll pardon the expression, and genuinely romantic.
In many ways, Zack and Miri Make a Porno's Full Monty-esque premise results in a much, much more conventional "raunch comedy"/romantic comedy version of Be Kind Rewind: an ode to the rejuvenating power of communal art (come to think of it, that's a popular theme of High School Musical as well). And bizarrely, it's conservative America's worst nightmare while simultaneously celebrating Sarah Palin's precious Joe Sixpack. Heck, Joe the Plumber wouldn't seem out of place in Zack and Miri's porn scenario. Americans shouldn't have to feel comfortable with the thought of kicking back and having a beer with their President, but it's not a bad criterion for a comedy filmmaker, and Smith is that guy. With his latest, Smith relaxes and plays to his strengths, proving in the process that he can make a non-"View Askewniverse" movie that's actually funny.
Genius Products brings Zack and Miri Make a Porno to Blu-ray and DVD in mirrored special editions. The Blu-ray looks terrific, with colors that pop, excellent shadow delineation and good detail throughout; everything is in its place with nary a hint of digital noise. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track may require some adjustment on some systems, as it's mastered at a lower volume than the norm. I had no problems, and the track ably handles the film's minimal demands, but audiophiles may balk at having to tweak their controls.
In what's a huge surprise for a Kevin Smith film, there's no commentary here (rumor has it that's out of protest for Weinstein's handling of the film's promotion and out of fear of ranting against the MPAA). No worries, though, because Smith's ViewAskew has produced a definitive, highly entertaining feature-length making-of. Popcorn Porn: Watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno (1:14:48, SD) assembles Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, Jennifer Schwalback Smith, Seth Rogen, Craig Robinson, Ricky Mabe, Katie Morgan, Jeff Anderson, Brandon Routh, Justin Long, Traci Lords, Jason Mewes, and Robert "Ratface" Holtzman to discuss writing, casting, production, test screening, and rating the movie; we also get audition footage of Robinson, Mabe and Morgan, clips from a midnight Improv show/wrap party and Comic-Con 2008, and plenty of on-set footage.
43 "Deleted Scenes" (1:35:02 with "Play All" option, HD) also amount to a feature length, and presented in HD, no less, on the Blu-ray. Needless to say, there are plenty of gems here; clearly, fans will be entertained for hours by this disc.
The fun continues with "Money Shots: A Series of Webisodes" (47:44 with "Play All" option, SD), 22 in all and an always welcome record of the cast and crew panel at "Comic-Con 2008" (23:09, SD) with Smith, Mosier, Mabe, Long, Morgan, Lords, Mewes, Rogen and Banks.
"Gang Bang: Outtakes, Ad-Libs and Bloopers" (13:00, SD) features more naughty clips, and the priceless "Seth vs. Justin: Battle for Improvisational Supremacy--Part I" (7:24, SD) features the best of Rogen's and Long's takes at the reunion. Lastly, Genius includes a BD-Live hookup for additional online content.
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