2018 Film Essays

Sweet, Satisfying and Sex-Positive: ‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’ at 10

For the uninitiated, Kevin Smith probably seems like the last person on earth who could possibly make a sweet romantic comedy. But Hollywood’s proudest stoner actually released a great genre film right at the height of his career. Chasing Amy, his 1997 Ben Affleck-Joey Lauren Adams two-hander, tackles the complex dynamics of the burgeoning relationship between a straight man and the lesbian he desperately wants to turn.

On paper, it sounds kind of rough, particularly nowadays. But, in reality, Chasing Amy is actually a sensitive and witty ode to sexual expression that, crucially, ends with Affleck’s character being shown up as the inconsiderate, selfish and woefully immature prick he really is. 

Eleven years later, Smith made his welcome return to the genre with an even harder sell: Zack and Miri Make a Porno. A movie with “porno” in the title. From the director of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Surely this couldn’t be anything more sophisticated than the usual dick-and-fart jokes to which fans of the Hockey Jersey-ed One had become accustomed? 

Apparently, it was even worse than anticipated. In Hatchet Job, a must-read book on film criticism, celebrated writer Mark Kermode put Zack and Miri Make a Porno alongside Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses as one of the worst movies he’s had the displeasure of sitting through in his professional career (that hardly seems fair, given Yoga Hosers succeeded it, but whatever). 

All joking aside, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is actually one of Smith’s strongest offerings to date, an unfairly maligned little gem that puts most people off purely because it’s a “Kevin Smith film.”

A decade on, its sexual politics seem, sadly, even more progressive. Take the conversation the titular characters have about Miri not being able to find a man who can make her orgasm as strongly as a vibrator, while Zack rails against her anti-fleshlight stance for being hypocritical. It’s genius and totally hilarious, but the moment works because it’s real. It’s an honest take on a woman’s feelings about masturbation. 

Female pleasure is given as much consideration here as male enjoyment, maybe even more, and Miri isn’t judged for her masturbatory or sexual habits — even as she judges Zack rather harshly for his. As crazy as it seems, this isn’t usually a given, even in mainstream, otherwise romance-heavy movies. When Harry Met Sally might have featured that iconic and groundbreaking “faking it” sequence, but Smith delves even further into the conversation.  

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a lot like a modern When Harry Met Sally, for broke 30-somethings rather than wealthy, super-hot business types. Rather than picturesque New York City, the titular non-couple live together in a ramshackle apartment in freezing Pittsburgh (this is one of very few Kevin Smith films not set in his beloved home state of New Jersey), which they can barely afford.

Struggling against the harsh weather conditions in their junker car, Zack steals Miri’s hand-warmer and shoves it down his pants, only to burn himself in a rather intimate area, leading Miri to die laughing. Instantly, five minutes into the movie, their too-close dynamic is established. As if any further proof were needed, Zack later admonishes Miri for not having any friends, to which she replies that he’s her friend. “Get a girl friend,” Zack corrects her. 

There’s an irresistibly natural chemistry between the two characters, a rapport that’s been built up over literal decades of friendship (viewers learn, over the course of the movie, that Zack and Miri met all the way back in first grade). When questioned by co-worker Delaney (an always-welcome Craig Robinson) about why they don’t take it further, Zack explains the need to not complicate matters with sex. 

It’s a perfectly reasonable standpoint for two people who have never thought about each other that way to take, and one which will be familiar to anybody whose BFF happens to be of the opposite sex (and who has to field those annoying questions on a regular basis). Likewise, the catalytic decision to make a porno movie happens because Zack and Miri are out of options and dignity (unlike other more responsible people). It makes sense, even though it’s a desperate solution. 

Zack and Miri Make a Porno isn’t a “will they, won’t they” scenario because viewers already know from the film’s title that they will (or, rather, that they have to). Instead, Smith focuses on how their dynamic changes after they do. Rather than Miri turning into a clingy, emotional mess, it’s Zack who admits to her that he felt something. And, instead of the man being the one to go cold, it’s Miri who harshly tells Zack to get a hold of himself because, “we just f***ed.”

It seems quite simple, but this is a twist on a hugely outdated rom-com trope. Likewise, the classic rom-com misunderstanding is as a result of Miri immaturely testing Zack’s feelings for her, even when he’s prepared to go to bat and tell her how much he really cares. Here, it’s the man who’s put in a position of vulnerability, and the man who gets his feelings hurt. 

As Zack, Seth Rogen is softer than his usual characters, ala Ben Stone in Knocked Up. He’s still the goofy stoner delivering sharp lines (“They fight just like real people!”) and propositioning unsuspecting women for sex, but Zack really cares about Miri. He never takes advantage of her, even attempting to stop his friend from sleeping with the sleazy Lester (Smith regular Jason Mewes, freshly sober and looking much younger than he did in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) out of obligation.

When Miri falls asleep, Zack covers her over with his coat. When they’re joking around about how well the shoot for their porno is going, he tells her sincerely, “Thank you… for everything,” with the implication being that she’s been keeping him going all these years. They might have a jokey relationship, but their respect for each other is never in doubt. They’re good to each other, the way best friends should be.

In making their fledgling flick, Zack discovers a whole other side to himself that further enamors Miri to him. It’s not that he changes necessarily, because he’s not a bad guy, but more that he taps into his own, hitherto unrealized skill-set. Likewise, the cast of characters the duo find to help with the production give Zack and Miri the space to realize how fulfilling their lives could be, while also widening their friendship circle. 

A terrific, diverse ensemble cast adds to Zack and Miri Make a Porno’s innate warmth. Aside from Robinson and Mewes, Jeff Anderson (aka Randall Graves, of Clerks) stars as the unlucky camera operator who gets the best line of the entire movie (re: being frosted like a cake), while Traci Lords plays the enigmatic Bubbles with a knowing smirk, and real-life porn star Katie Morgan offers a nuanced portrayal of an adult actress as the lovable Stacey. 

Elsewhere, one-time Superman Brandon Routh shows up as the high school jock who turns out to be gay, with a fantastically seedy Justin Long (who would go on to lead Smith’s underrated body horror movie Tusk) as his boyfriend. As confident porn star Brandon St. Randy, Long is so fabulously proud of both his chosen career and his loving relationship with the erstwhile hottest guy in school he almost runs away with the whole movie.

It’s worth noting, too, that his deep voice (which predates Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born drawl by a decade) was the result of a debilitating head cold, coupled with Long’s insistence that this is how real male porn stars talk. 

While Smith has fun with the hilariously over the top sex scenes, as well as plenty of nods to Star Wars and various porn knockoffs of famous movies, when it’s time for Zack and Miri to cross that line, the entire mood changes. There’s a clever juxtaposition between how the sex scene plays to the two people taking part and how it shows on camera, as the various cast and crew members casually discuss Lost out of boredom. 

Meanwhile, Smith moves his camera above the two of them — the other sex scenes are shot head on — to capture only Miri’s reactions, with zero nudity on show from either she or Zack, and a score in place of the standard bom chicka wah wah. The focus, once again, is on female pleasure and on the electricity generated by these two long-time friends finally giving in to feelings they probably never even realized were there. As Zack himself describes it, they were “supposed to f**k, but we ended up making love.”

The moral of Zack and Miri Make a Porno is also surprisingly sweet for a movie with the word “porno” in the title. Even though the eventual denouement is pretty obvious, given the fact it’s a rom-com to its core, that doesn’t make it any less joyous to root for these two regular folks to end up together.

As Miri, Elizabeth Banks is adorable but dorky, not ridiculously gorgeous or played as a cool girl too good to even give Zack the time of day (see: Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Likewise, Rogen is cute in his own way but neither completely disgusting nor secretly a hot guy in disguise. 

There’s no big makeover montage, or revelation that these two people are attractive and should be attracted to each other as a result. When Miri asks how she looks and Zack’s no-nonsense reply is “You always look so beautiful,” it makes complete sense within the context of their relationship because it’s taken as a given, rather than a come-on (still, she’s understandably chuffed to hear it). 

In a 2008 interview with Collider, Smith explained both his love of, and frustration with, rom-coms, advising, “I just can’t stand it when they’re sanitized and cleaned up, and it ends with a kiss. I like mine to have the f****ng happen, and then everything falls apart. And I like people to speak candidly and frankly and use harsh language… because everyone I know speaks like that.”

It’s this approach that makes Zack and Miri Make a Porno one of Smith’s cleverest, funniest movies. Whether it’s the immortal fight over whether the bathroom door was closed or just closed over, the workplace banter between Robinson, Rogen and their boss, or Zack’s description of porn as mainstream (“It’s like Coke or Pepsi! With dicks in it!”), the flick is loaded with well-earned, laugh-out-loud moments.

There’s plenty of random Smith references too — the fleshlight, the idea of putting something “right out there on front street,” that strategically chosen Primus song over the opening moments, etc. — but Zack and Miri Make a Porno doesn’t feel quite as self-referential as other View Askew productions. It’s unsurprising to learn Smith penned the script for it back to back with his brilliant religious horror movie Red State, given they are two of his most tightly-written films.

Earlier this year, the beleagured filmmaker was accused of being a misogynist in an ill-advised and factually inaccurate opinion piece about his writing an upcoming comic book about Kick Ass‘ Hit Girl (the writer later apologized). He also let female fans down at Vulgar Con 2018 when questioned about whether he’d consider himself a feminist (Smith gave the annoying “I’m a humanist/equalist” response beloved of ignorant straight white dudes). 

Nevertheless, the work speaks for itself, and from Clerks‘ shaming of Dante for freaking out over the amount of blowjobs his girlfriend has given in her life to Miri’s demand for decent orgasms, Smith’s filmography belies a strong and firmly-held belief in the equality of the sexes (he’s also been married to a hardcore feminist for 20 years, natch).

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is incredibly sex positive, and its logical, satisfying ending makes sense for both leads without betraying either of them. Smith never turns Miri into a harpy, nor does he exonerate Zack for his lazy attitude towards life. The two of them are on even footing throughout, from using household bills to start a garbage can fire indoors to mounting a porno shoot together. 

Jealousy rears its ugly head (via a devastating, slow-mo music cue for the otherwise upbeat “Hey” by Pixies), but it’s Zack and Miri’s combined decision to show vulnerability that ultimately seals the deal for the sex-crazed BFFs. Zack even screams the bathroom door down with all the stuff he knows about Miri, further reaffirming that he loves her, to paraphrase another classic rom-com, just as she is. 

And, to think, all it took to realize they belonged together all along was something as simple as “filming people f****ng.” 

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

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