November 3, 2008

Kevin Smith Makes an Apatow

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It’s been a while since Kevin Smith’s last movie (two years, to be exact, with Clerks II). Clerks II proved that some great filmmaking steps had been made by everyone’s favorite potbellied ’90s independent cinema giant. He had updated the premise of his groundbreaking 1993 film, Clerks, with character growth and arc development, and he also furthered the use of “show, don’t tell” techniques.
Kevin Smith is an often-controversial filmmaker. His works are noted for their scatological frankness and puerile, yet penetrating fascination with vulgar topics. Combined with a healthy dose of geek trivia and cult knowledge, and occasional cameos by slacker superstars Jay (lifelong cohort Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (played by the director himself) Smith has defined cinema that champions society’s underdogs and the achievement-challenged. At least, he did until Judd Apatow came along.
In a post-Superbad world, raunchy comedies with a side of emotional core and lovable characters are the norm and now set the bar for R-rated comedy. Sex Drive and the American Pie sequels are things of the past.
So, Smith, in his commitment to film and his niche within the medium, has come back from what feels like a hiatus with Zack and Miri Make a Porno. The ingredients for raunchy romantic comedy are already in the title. But then again, Clerks was about convenience store clerks. Smith’s a pretty straightforward person. That hasn’t changed.
These days, raunchy romantic comedies always seem to involve Seth Rogen (Knocked Up). Oh my! He’s the lead! And Elizabeth Banks (The 40-Year Old Virgin) is the other! And no Jay and Silent Bob? Well, Jason Mewes is in the credits, but he plays … a brand new character? This could almost be a Judd Apatow movie by itself! Look, there’s Craig Robinson!
What is going on? Turns out, Kevin Smith is aware of the new Apatow school, and it’s amazing how much his movie resembles Apatow’s work. Very little fits into typical Smith fare. The story is set in Pittsburgh, not New Jersey. There are almost no monologues, although there are plenty of obscure references (but Apatow movies are full of those, and they’re more subtle as well). And, as already stated, actors made famous by Apatow pepper the work.
Does it work? Well, to remain printable, the plot can be described as follows: Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks) are best friends and roommates short on their rent. After attending their high school reunion and meeting old acquaintances-turned-gay-pornographers, and then summarily having their power and water turned off, the two decide that the world of low-budget adult film might be their only ticket out of freezing / starving to death. They take out a loan from Zack’s friend Delaney (Robinson, Pineapple Express, The Office) and enlist the services of Deacon (Smith veteran Jeff Anderson) to film, as well as Lester (Mewes), Stacey and Bubbles (you’ll see) to star. Zack and Miri obviously have more complex feelings than platonic friendship, and the prospect of having sex on camera with each other and “complete strangers” brings out deep (and deeply contrived) confrontations and then realizations about intimacy and true love apart from casual sex.
Some moments are funny, but every funny line has an excess vulgarity tacked on that crosses into overkill. In fact, people don’t curse this much in real life. It’s too real to be real. Coupled with the highly implausible plot (can you imagine shooting live sex scenes in a place like Starbucks after hours without getting caught by anyone?), the language often distracts.
Another complaint is the hackneyed plot. It’s understandable when based on the title, the audience knows the two characters will end up together (see Nick and Norah), but to have buzz-kill moments throughout the film where the two characters can doe-eye each other, or to have the characters loudly deny having any feelings for the other repeatedly … really? Why not just have them stare into the camera and wink as they thrust pelvises and point at each other? We get it. Honestly, compared to the subtlety and tragedy of Chasing Amy, perhaps Smith’s most critically-acclaimed film, this one’s ending felt almost like a cop-out.
Overall, however, even as an Apatow knock-off, the film still works. It’s more often funny than not, and the clever use of music and likeability of all involved keeps interest high. In fact, the directing is the best part. Smith is a master, as modest as he may be about it. Every shot is tasteful, like the camera couldn’t have been used more effectively. Close-ups are revealing, and the use of music, foreground, background, lighting … Smith has truly mastered his craft, and truly come a long way from Clerks. Some sight gags hurt the eyes … a lot. And use of certain body fluids is questionable. But remember kids, it’s a Kevin Smith movie with “porno” in the title.