Vulgar, sordid and touching
KEVIN Smith, like Quentin Tarantino, is a video nerd, a film buff whose knowledge is based on VCRs watched compulsively during the period when, as a teenager, he worked in a video shop. Born and bred in suburban New Jersey, Smith made his first film, Clerks ( 1994), a black-and-white slacker comedy, on a minuscule $ US27,000 budget when he was 24 years old.
Drawn from life — the protagonists were employed in a convenience store and a video shop respectively — the film impressed with the authenticity of its ( foul) dialogue and the realism of its setting and characters. It was a breath of fresh air and Smith has never quite managed to top it in the seven films he’s made since, including a 2006 sequel.
Some filmmakers seek only to entertain, but Smith wants to entertain and confront, hence work such as Chasing Amy, in which the straight hero falls heavily in love with a lesbian, or Dogma, which mercilessly attacks some of the cherished beliefs of Catholicism.
For his latest film, Smith has teamed up with Seth Rogen, the Canadian-born actor most associated with the Judd Apatow school of comedy that came to prominence with The 40 Year Old Virgin , in which Rogen played a key supporting role. It seems like a marriage made in heaven, as both Smith and Rogen obviously have no high-toned ideas about such things as good taste, a notion that is anathema to them. The third key figure here is the talented Elizabeth Banks, who was also in The 40 Year Old Virgin , but whose career has covered far more ground than grungy comedy, as anyone who has seen her performance as Laura Bush in the upcoming W. can testify.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno seems like an exaggerated autobiographical take on Smith’s beginnings: just as he made Clerks at his place of work using his friends as actors, so Zack ( Rogen) and Miri ( Banks) also make a no-budget film at their workplace, though in their case the financial imperative demands that their production be attractive to the porn market.
They have been friends since school and they share an uncomfortable house in chilly Pittsburgh, but have never had sex: as Zack typically puts it, ‘‘ You don’t f . . k someone you met in the first grade.’’
Though they are both employed in modest jobs ( Zack works in the Bean-n-Gone coffee shop), they can’t pay their bills; they’re behind with the rent and their water and power supplies are about to be cut off. Miri has become a minor celebrity on the local geek circuit because she was photographed on a mobile phone as she was trying on a dress in a local shop and an image of her bottom, decorously clad in old-fashioned panties, was immediately posted on the net.
This embarrassment is quickly followed by another: the pair attend their high school reunion and Miri is determined to go home with Bobby Long ( Brandon Routh), whom she has adored for years. But he arrives in the company of his boyfriend ( Justin Long) and reveals that he’s a porn star in LA.
Which gives Zack and Miri the idea of making money from porn, starring themselves. Though they’ve never ‘‘ done it’’ together, Miri is reluctant to have sex on camera with a stranger, while Zack is inhibition-free. Their friend Delaney ( Craig Robinson, known to viewers of the American version of The Office ) comes on board as producer and ‘‘ casting director’’, and a small cast and crew of volunteers eagerly lend their services to the production of Star Whores.
There are, of course, complications, but the surprise of the film is that, despite its grossly vulgar dialogue, its obsession with various forms of sex, especially anal, and one horrendously crude defecation sequence, it’s intrinsically sweet and, in the case of its two central characters and their eventual mating, so coy.
The legion of Smith-Rogen fans will probably not be disappointed by this piece of nonsense and, in a strangely perverse way — and thanks to the solid performances of the two leads — the love story of Zack and Miri is more touching than you might expect, given the film’s grungy setting and essentially sordid theme. HE’S Just Not That Into You ( the title is derived from Sex and the City , which might be a warning or a recommendation, according to your point of view) takes a more conventional approach to contemporary relationships although, in a halfhearted kind of way, it wants to explore the pitfalls of dating in the era of iPhone, Facebook and MySpace.
As Drew Barrymore’s character, Mary, explains forlornly at one point: ‘‘ People just don’t meet organically any more. If I want to make myself more attractive to the opposite sex, I don’t go get a new haircut — I update my profile.’’
A sharp, astringent comedy on the pluses and minuses of 21st-century dating is promised, but the film fails partly because too many of the numerous characters involved — nine major players in all — are familiar from countless other romantic comedies and partly because the listless direction by Ken Kwapis allows the slight material to stretch out well beyond the twohour mark.
There’s nothing particularly fresh about Ben ( Bradley Cooper), who cheats on his controlling wife, Janine ( Jennifer Connelly), with the ultrahot Anna ( Scarlett Johansson) after they meet at a supermarket checkout. The same goes for Neil ( Ben Affleck) and Beth ( Jennifer Aniston): they’ve been living together for seven years and he doesn’t want to marry her, so she engineers a split-up.
There’s nothing very 21st-century here, or anything new in the fact that Beth’s sister is marrying a beer-swigging, TV sports-loving bore. Far too much running time is wasted on these characters, and though the actors involved are mostly major players, the material they’ve been given to work with is very old hat.
The film comes alive with the character of Gigi ( Ginnifer Goodwin), a sweet, pathetically eager young woman who desperately wants a boyfriend. Gigi works ( if that’s the right word) in the same office as Janine and Beth, and they seem to spend most of the day giving her advice about the man she had a drink with the night before.
Each day it’s the same story: he hasn’t called, but, as Gigi endlessly frets, maybe he did call and she didn’t get the message, or maybe he lost her number, or went away, or had an accident. (‘‘ Please don’t cyber-stalk him,’’ one of the girls begs her about her latest disappointment). But the brutal truth, as Alex ( Justin Long), the wisebeyond-his-years manager of a popular bar, explains patiently to her, is that if he hasn’t called it’s because he doesn’t want to.
Audiences in the same age bracket as the characters on screen may relish much of this slickly made confection, but the basic lack of originality is a bit depressing.
Perhaps there really is nothing much new to say about the battle of the sexes, but when the debate about marriage in an era of living together boils down to either ‘‘ No guy really wants to get married, they’re thinking of all the women they’re missing out on’’ or ‘‘ You’re a dick if you date a girl for too long and don’t marry her’’, you know that He’s Just Not That Into You doesn’t have anything terribly new to say. It was interesting, though, to discover that girls named Amber or Christine apparently aren’t the marrying kind.
Lights, camera, fornication: Elizabeth Banks, Justin Long and Seth Rogen in Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Pretty predictable in pink: Jennifer Aniston and Sasha Alexander in He’s Just Not That Into You