Kevin Smith wants what Judd Apatow has. Using elements of the New Jersey director's brilliant comedies Clerks and Chasing Amy, Apatow built a foul-mouthed comedy empire where Smith's films always fell short of major box-office success. As the film opens this weekend, does Zack and Miri Make a Porno belong to Kevin Smith, or Judd Apatow?From the moment The Weinstein Company logo opens on Kevin Smith's latest, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, there's considerable question as to whose film this exactly is. Does the film belong to Smith's pantheon of grungy comedies, or Judd Apatow's free range of Seth Rogen-based stoner adventure stories? You can't really tell by the supporting cast. As with all of these recent comedies, the familiar milieu of Zack and Miri is more designed to make the audience say, "Look, there's the guy from The Office! Look, there's the chick from that porn you showed me!" than to revel in the performances themselves. This is also true of the industry that is satirized in Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Broke and working at a coffeeshop, it's the Rogen character's bright idea to get naked on camera. Rogen, of course, hews so closely to his stoner typecast that the film doesn't even bother to supply him with a bong. With his hot roommate (Banks, left) in tow, he tries to find a way to pay the bills in a dour economic landscape. Making a film about making a film is easy fodder for jokes, and making a film about making a porno should be, too. We've all watched porn, and we know exactly what's being satirized. Yet the movie doesn't get half the mileage that even Boogie Nights found in the strange process of filming people having sex. Neither mainstream enough to satisfy a larger audience, or disgusting enough to satisfy Smith's own devotees, Zack and Miri is straddling a difficult line, one best exemplified by the controversy over the movie's promotion. Although it has its share of profanity, the movie doesn't have much nudity, and features but one revolting gross-out moment to make the Farrelly Brothers proud. Smith compensates by cramming in his usual litany of above-average jokes, mostly at the expense of women or gays. Smith's terrible behind the camera, but he's always been a deft and funny writer, tuned into how and why people broadcast their insecurities. Early films like his magical debut Clerks and his love letter to Joey Lauren Adams Chasing Amy thrived on that tenderness.
Even when Smith misfired, he did it in an exciting way. So what if he couldn't write a decent third act? At his best Smith tossed aside the pat ending of Knocked Up or The 40 Year Old Virgin for something more complicated and real. In a sacrifice to the Apatow formula, that doesn't happen here — and if that's what it takes to make Zack and Miri a mainstream hit, then Smith made the right choice. Whatever Smith's films are, they're not condescending. The collected cast of Zack and Miri could seem like a bunch of Hollywood actors (and porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan) on a set built to look like a Pittsburgh suburb, but instead it looks like a Kevin Smith movie. Whether that's good or bad is up to you.