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By the standards of post-Apatovian gross-out comedy, the plot of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (The Weinstein Company)—two broke platonic pals agree to collaborate on a homemade porn film and fall in love in the process—qualifies as positively sweet. This movie could have been an effervescent neo-screwball romance, Bringing Up Baby with nut-sack jokes. So there's no blaming the subject matter for the fact that Zack and Miri feels so dispiritingly graceless.
The cast isn't really at fault, either. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, though their chemistry is a little off here, proved they can have good on-screen sex in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the very funny Craig Robinson (who, like Rogen, is a regular Apatow player) nearly commits Grand Theft Movie in every role he plays. Nope, I'm afraid there's no one to blame but writer-director Kevin Smith if viewers walk out of Zack and Miri never wanting to have sex again. A cult figure among the Adult Swim crowd, Smith has always been better at the foulmouthed and frankly sophomoric (Clerks, Mallrats) than the wistful and sincere (Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl). This movie ups the ante in both categories; it wants its audience to guffaw at dick jokes and swoon over the perfect kiss. That combination of raunch and heart isn't impossible to achieve—at his best, Apatow can pull it off—but it requires a nimbler pen and a sweeter soul than Kevin Smith brings to this movie.
Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks) play unambitious and barely solvent twentysomethings who share a squalid apartment in Pittsburgh. He works as a barista in a strip-mall coffee shop; she sells clothes at the mall. As their unpaid bills pile up and eviction notices loom, Zack hatches a plan to cash in with a homemade adult video—a plan Miri resists until their power and water are shut off on the same day.
After securing seed money from Zack's co-worker Delaney (Robinson), the roomies hire a cast of willing exhibitionists (including Kevin Smith stalwart Jason Mewes and real-life porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan) and rent a studio space in which to shoot their outer-space sex opera, Star Whores. After a last-minute setback, the crew is forced to reshoot at Zack and Delaney's coffee shop after hours, where they decide to jettison the George Lucas angle and title their new masterwork Swallow My Cockuccino.
The movie's central joke—that loving, intimate sex, of the kind Zack and Miri will eventually have on camera, makes for lousy pornography—is both clever and affecting. And the scene in which the two friends finally get it on is one of the few aesthetically successful moments, as Smith uses two different soundtracks to contrast the lovers' ecstasy with their onlookers' boredom. But Zack and Miri keeps throwing away the opportunity to be more than a string of undifferentiated puerile gags. The moment these characters start discussing feelings, their dialogue turns stiff: Would anyone from Zack and Miri's uninhibited Generation Y circle be caught dead using the boomer euphemism "making love"?
Boogie Nights (one of my favorite films of the '90s) and the 2003 Spanish gem Torremolinos 73were both delightful (if idealized) fantasies about porn-making as a source of personal and artistic liberation. But though Zack and Miri staunchly maintains that its characters find creative fulfillment in their group project, we never really see them experiencing that joy. Maybe that's because Zack and Miri and their crew are barely characters at all; they're wisecrack delivery systems. As for the porn itself, what sex we do see is simulated; the nudity is minimal (the inflated breasts of porn stars seem more like costumes than body parts), and there's a single, albeit deeply disgusting, scatological sight gag. Zack and MiriMake a Porno is neither dirty enough to satisfy Kevin Smith fans nor romantic enough to get your date into bed.