Amateur Hour
By Elbert Ventura

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Dir. Kevin Smith, U.S., The Weinstein Company

Kevin Smith’s career is one of the mysteries of American film culture. He’s eight movies into his career—eight!—and he has shown zero progress. How does a man who has no idea how to frame or light a shot, or structure a screenplay, or write a convincing conversation, or direct actors continue to be a mainstay of indie cinema? Perhaps the charge is unfair, as I haven’t been his most diligent follower. After 1999’s Dogma, an ugly, lame, and utterly stupid movie inexplicably hailed by some, I gave up on Smith, the goodwill left over from 1994’s Clerks—a revelation for this teenage New Jerseyan new to film geekdom—all exhausted.

But if Zack and Miri Make a Porno is anything to go by, I’ve missed nothing. Unabashedly riding the Judd Apatow wave, Smith’s latest is this month’s high-concept raunchfest-with-a-heart-of-gold—a genre that’s had a good run but like a limping thoroughbred now needs to be put out of its misery. Lifelong friends and roommates Zack and Miri, barely eking it out in the Bush economy, decide to solve their financial woes by making a porno starring themselves and an assortment of freaks. Bridging that set-up and their inevitable coupling is a rough draft of a script, a patchwork succession of pointless bantering, gross-out gags, time-killing montages, spoon-feeding exposition, and idiotic contrivances. I’d be more specific, but since Smith doesn’t sweat the details, I’ll spare you them as well.

Smith has always fancied himself a chronicler of contemporary male neurosis. Fixated on dicks—their own, other guys’, ones that have been or will be in their girlfriends—his protagonists always arrive at a state of acceptance, even maturity, however unearned or fraudulent its attainment may be. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, Smith’s man-child arcs actually predate Apatow’s shtick. Now he finally seems poised to profit from it. Zack and Miri promises to be Smith’s biggest hit, not least because it stars Seth Rogen—now a bona fide headliner and wearing out fast—and Elizabeth Banks, a sunny comedienne with one of the best laughs in the movies.

But if Zack and Miri indicates Smith’s continuing—and puzzling—endurance, it might also signal the death of the Apatow fratboy weepie. Far from being a hater, I actually like a few of Apatow’s movies: Buoyed by Steve Carell and Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was recognizably, even touchingly, human. Knocked Up had me chuckling; Superbad had me howling. And Anchorman—a different kind of Apatow movie, the absurdist revue—sits just under The Big Lebowski in my list of funniest movies from the last ten years. But in 2008 the formula has shown signs of exhaustion. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express (James Franco’s performance notwithstanding), Step Brothers: all from the Apatow factory, all forgettable. Zack and Miri, an Apatow product not in name but certainly in spirit and marketing, is the nadir of the trend, a movie that showcases all the worst tendencies of the man-child dramedy.

Pitched to the present, Zack and Miri takes for granted the mainstreaming of porn and the ethos of YouTube (indeed, in its slapdash ineptitude, it embodies the ethos of YouTube). Halfway through the movie I quietly closed my notebook and put away my pen. Asked for a 1000-word review, I begged for much less—how much can one really say about a Kevin Smith movie? And yet the man retains his appeal. At the screening I attended, pre-show chatter suggested familiarity with his oeuvre, the laughs during the movie came steadily, and the applause at the end was gentle but grateful. All of it for a man whose movies look no better than cruddy mimicries of Hollywood trifles? And whose scripts seem sprung from undergrad screenplay classes populated by dudes who think their sexual hang-ups are as fascinating to us as they are to them? Can this movie year get any worse?