Vul­gar, sor­did and touch­ing

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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