Ostensibly, Zack and Miri Make a Porno should be money-shot Kevin Smith: Pals make a porn to pay the bills and, in the process of gettin' it on for the video cam, cum to realize their years-in-the-making friendship is really a love affair. Awwwww, how sweet. In other words, it's quintessential Silent Bob, as hard-up meets hard-on in a movie that's all heart once you get past the shit shot that'll shock only those for whom Clerks II's donkey show wasn't oh-God-no enough.
There's a Star Wars dress-up sequence too, apropos for the guy who got Mark Hamill to appear as a character called CockKnocker in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the same film in which Carrie Fisher played a rather rode-hard nun. Only, the Lucasfilm homage is tossed after a few fleeting but promising moments; from there, it's straight-up sex in a coffee shop after work hours, where Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) enlist some new fuck-buddies to shoot their amateur smut opus, Swallow My Cockuccino.
The storyline's as conventional as they come. Zack and Miri are childhood friends and roommates who between them can still barely scrape together rent money, even though both have jobs and don't exactly live on the brighter side of squalid. Theirs is a perfectly platonic relationship, more brother and sister than BFFs. Alas, three events conspire to drive them into the adult-entertainment business: a chance meeting with a dude-on-dude porn star (Justin Long) and his gay lover (Brandon Routh) at their high school reunion, some rather benign YouTube footage of Miri's "granny panties," and their electricity getting cut off during the holiday season. What to do? Voila, porn! Why doesn't everyone think of that?
Zack and Miri is undiluted Dork Knight, down to the casting of Superman Routh and Justin Long, vamping and camping it up after his stint as straight man in Live Free or Die Hard (already perilously close to a porn title). Having gone soft with Jersey Girl (which is looking better all the time) only to regroup by remaking Clerks solely for the diehards, Smith here rounds up Judd Apatow's familiars (Rogen, Banks, Craig Robinson, The 40-Year-Old Virgin's Gerry Bednob), pairs them with his own regulars (Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson) plus Traci Lords, and puts "Porno" in the title. Still, there is something decidedly novel (nay, revolutionary!) about this particular Kevin Smith film: It looks professionally made, which counts for something. No longer does a Smith movie play like a vacation slide show; the camera moves! He's rude, sure, but no longer rudimentary. (He's also no longer in Jersey, setting Zack and Miri in the frozen tundra of Pittsburgh.)
Robinson, as Zack's coffee-shop co-worker and the only guy he knows with dough, fronts him the necessary coin; The Office vet, playing a henpecked husband, is terrific as the "producer" for whom the auditioning process alone merits the investment. Mewes too is amusing as the dim-witted hunk just looking to bang somebody — at the very least, Smith has given his old buddy Jay a role for which he's required to do more than roll it up and smoke it. Truth is, Banks and Rogen are forced to grapple with the least interesting characters in the whole movie — slackers in love who, when they finally get around to their one porn scene together, go all soft-focus in a movie desperately in need of something a little, um, harder.
From its few scatological asides to its inevitable boob shots, nothing about Zack and Miri feels terribly fresh, much less transgressive. We've seen Banks and Rogen play-acting porn already, at the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin — she in the hot tub, a shower nozzle strategically placed just below the bubbly surface; he off to the side, stripping down for a dip into the warm jets. As for the just-plain-folks angle, last year saw Jeff Bridges, Ted Danson, and their own small-stars shrugging their way through The Amateurs.
Amiable and engaging in person and a filmmaker for whom comic and movie nerds so desperately want to root, Smith makes two kinds of movies: romantic comedies and bromantic comedies, with Chasing Amy — his one legitimately great movie — the crossover hybrid hit. They're all decidedly conventional affairs, save for the detours into gross-out juvenilia that, the older Smith gets, seem less sincere and feel more like pandering to the audience that goes to his movies solely to walk out with a couple of lines they can quote to each other on the ride home. But the biggest titters at a recent preview screening came during a scene in which Mewes shows off his dick — as though, at last! Still, how Jason Segal of him. Does Apatow always get there first?