Zack and Miri And The Sex Industry On The Silver Screen

Can Kevin Smith regain his crown from Judd Apatow? David Bax doesn't think so. We also cast an eye over the numerous ways the sex industry has been portrayed on the big screen.

Relocating from his New Jersey comfort zone to the not-entirely-dissimilar locale of snowy Pittsburgh, Kevin Smith’s latest offering, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is occasionally entertaining but more often serves as an example of just why and how Smith’s brand of sweet-natured crudeness has been bested and replaced.

Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are longtime friends and current roommates who wander through life with a stack of unpaid bills hanging over their heads. Here, Smith nails the squalor of the aimless young adults who believe that by spending their meagre service industry paychecks on frivolous things such as ice skates and masturbation toys instead of those bills, they can will themselves out of having to grow up.

After attending their ten year high school reunion, a sequence that contains more life and humour than the entire rest of the film, Zack and Miri return home to find that reality has intruded on their lives and their water and electricity have been shut off. And here the movie begins to decompose. A chance meeting with a gay porn star (Justin Long, far more hilarious than the script he’s been given), has planted an idea in Zack’s head. He and Miri will fulfil the promise of the film’s title and fornicate on camera in order to make some money.

Up until this point, Zack and Miri has been propelled along nicely, thanks entirely to the efforts of Rogen and Banks, both veterans of films by Judd Apatow, who seems to be the elephant in the room for the entire movie. Smith may have done the foul-mouthed man-child who’s a big softie at heart thing first, but Apatow did it better, he did it funnier and he made more money at it. He showed that a movie could be childish but tell stories about adults, that one could be crass without being inelegant. Smith’s casting could be seen as an attempt to connect himself to the new regime but instead it only highlights the ways in which he falls short of it.

For the next hour of the film, we are once again invited into the narrow id of Kevin Smith. Once again, there are arbitrary references to hockey, and once again, he casts his friends, actors from the Clerks films, among others, who have never been able to deliver Smith’s dialogue in a way that makes it sound human, the way better actors like Rogen and Matt Damon have.

When it comes time to hash out the particulars of the porno film within the film, Smith truly reveals his inability to write characters that think in any way differently than he thinks. The porno is a parody of Star Wars. How could it be anything else, except for the fact that, if these characters are attending a ten year high school reunion in 2008, they are about a decade younger than Smith is, and were just graduating from preschool when Return of the Jedi was released. Their cultural reference points are more likely to feature Jurassic Park or Forrest Gump than the science fiction saga that has become irreparably attached to the worst of the stereotypical slackers of Smith’s generation. His continual reference of it proves that, even nearing 40, he still refuses to grow up.

Soon, the inevitable happens. It comes time for Zack and Miri to screw on screen. As to whether or not they’re able to remain just friends, I’ll leave as a surprise, though it won’t really come as one. I’ll only say that, from this point on, the movie repeatedly chooses the easiest way out of every emotional obstacle, eventually ending up exactly where you guessed it would and with no surprises along the way.

In the end, Smith’s inability to mature as a storyteller betrays him. Once the plot has exhausted itself as a means of conveying outrageous (and outrageously verbose) jokes, the film resolves itself lazily and unsatisfactorily, as all Kevin Smith films do, with a couple of cheap speeches and a pat ending.

If Kevin Smith someday discovers the importance of character and story, he could still grow as a filmmaker. But as long he keeps making tired afterthoughts like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, his legacy of unfulfilled potential and as the precursor to this decade’s great comedies will be cemented.

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