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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (review)

Ordinary People

Porn: I’m so not a fan of it. For the same reasons I’m so not a fan of most slasher/torture horror movies. Cuz it’s all about body parts, not about people. Body parts are only interesting insofar as the people they’re attached to are interesting. And most people aren’t that interesting anyway, so it only makes things worse to detach at least the little bit of ordinary interest that comes along with them just being alive.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno is not about body parts: it’s about people. They’re not brilliant people and they’re not gorgeous people and they’re not people who are going to save the world — they’re ordinary people, way more believably ordinary people than we usually see at the movies. Except in Kevin Smith’s (Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) movies, maybe, where the supreme ordinariness of his people is the point: they’re us. They’re particularly us if you’re GenX — say, between your late 20s and your late 40s. It hardly even seems like a thing that Zack and Miri and their pals profess a belief in the sanctity of an Amazon wish list or talk about masturbation in a casual way that also includes a reference to MacGyver. That might seem like an extreme kind of forced cleverness to someone older (and anyone younger probably won’t even know who MacGyver is), but to us Xers, it’s just what we feel and the way we talk, for honest real.

And us for honest real, we grew up bombarded by images of sexuality that were telling us — subliminally and not so subliminally — to fuck fuck fuck all the time, with anyone we want and whenever we want: Hey, everyone’s doin’ it! So perhaps the most surprising thing to anyone older than us Xers — like the idiots at the TV networks who wouldn’t run ads for the film without deleting the bit from the title about making a porno (even though they’ll run ads for Viagra), and the idiots at some multiplexes who won’t show the film at all (even though they’ll run actual torture-porn like Saw V) — might be to discover here, should they bother to check it out at all, that even given all that, we still understand that sex isn’t about body parts but about people.

At the tail end of GenX are Zack (Seth Rogen: Pineapple Express, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks: W., Definitely, Maybe), who’ve been best pals since first grade, and they’re just attending their 10th high-school reunion as the movie opens. (For a stark example of how differently the generations are coming across in pop culture, see how the cohort ten years younger than Zack and Miri is depicted in the wholesome Disney goodness of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, where half the kids have gotta be gay, right?, and no one cares because nobody is having sex with anybody, they’re just chastely pining away for one another. And I bet we see the usual aggressive sexuality of vampirism defanged in the upcoming teen undead romance Twilight.) Zack and Miri are platonic roommates about to get kicked out of their shitty Pittsburgh apartment for nonpayment of rent — they both have crappy retail jobs that don’t pay much, and, to be honest about it, they’re not very good with their money, what with wasting it on indulging themselves with junk from their Amazon wish lists and all. Still, it’s not all that pleasant to be living in Pittsburgh in December with the power and the heat and the water already turned off, but at least it’s better than a cardboard box.

So: desperation time, and the tail end of GenX is literally the tail end. The pals decide to make a porn film to raise the money they need to stay afloat. (Neither seems to have any family to turn to. That’s an Xer thing, too: we invent our own families, and not always of the traditional kind.) Why not a porno? Sure, Zack jokes — although it’s not really a joke — that most people would not choose this route because “they have options — and dignity.” But hey, if Paris Hilton can make a sex tape and then go on to sell perfume to tweens — as Zack notes, which appears to be Smith’s attempt to pre-defuse any objections to his not-porno by pointing out how hypocritical our culture is about this stuff — then why can’t these two nobodies at least raise some dough to keep themselves off the street? They won’t even go on to become wholesome ad pitchpeople afterward, honest.

There are ups and downs, needless to say, on their journey as superindie porno filmmakers — unexpected setbacks and then the inevitable bouncebacks that spring from their creativity and desperation. But the important things to note are not matters of plot but matters of people: there’s nothing dirty or nasty in the casualness of the nudity or the sex acts on display here. (Well, there is one literally dirty moment that is so extreme and so pointless that I wonder why Smith included it at all, apart from its shock value, which is the only thing that could be said to be in its favor… and only if you think that pointless shock value is a good thing. I don’t.) The gang Zack and Miri gather around them to fill out their X-rated flick — played by a cheerful bunch that includes Smith regular Jason Mewes and real-life porn queen Traci Lords — look like they’re having fun, and they certainly respect one another (and the, ahem, unique talents each brings to the pot). We may know that sex is about people, but it’s not like we’re saying that, you know, you have to be madly in love or anything to have a good time.

On the other hand… this is the point of Zack and Miri: these lifelong friends discover that maybe there’s more to their friendship than just friendship, and now that they’ve agreed to have sex on camera — for artistic reasons — they’re finding that maybe they shouldn’t… because it wouldn’t be just about having sex for fun (and money). And of course they can’t admit this to each other, because if the other doesn’t feel the same way, it really will ruin their friendship…

It’s a tangled, messy web, to be sure, but it’s a sweetly romantic one that couldn’t be further from pornography if it tried. The theme they come up with for their porno — an X-rated parody of Star Wars called Star Whores — is, it must be said, downright adorable. But the real moment that illustrates what wonderful innocents Zack and Miri are — not in a sexual sense but in not-dirty-about-it sense — is when they’ve first hit on the porn idea but are still debating whether it would really work. “Who the eff would want to watch us fuck?” Miri wonders. She can say fuck as a perfectly plain description for sexual intercourse, but not as a nonsexual swear word. That’s just not a very nice thing to say.


MPAA: rated R for strong crude sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity and pervasive language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer

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