Review: Zack and Mire Make a Porno (2008)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno accomplishes the tremendous feat of making pornography into something charming, friendly, and even joyful. The movie begins on a desperate note: Zack and Miri are roommates (platonic but with obvious feelings for one another) living in terrible poverty. Their dull world and pleasureless jobs are illustrated in shots of cold, suburban wastelands that could be from Fargo. But as the utilities go out one by one, Zack comes up with a brilliant idea to pay the bills: film a porn film starring both of them. At this moment, the movie’s tone suddenly becomes upbeat. Shots of cold parking lots are replaced with warm interiors. The making of the porn movie becomes an exhilarating process. People line up for auditions, and happily cast off their clothing without hesitation. And when the actors are chosen, the amateur porn stars have no moral reservations about being filmed in the sexual act. Porn is just a thing people do- no biggie. Zack even finds his inner creativity and ambition as he directs the film (it is disappointing the film does not follow this character development more closely). Zack and Miri Make a Porno has a refreshingly sex-positive, if romanticized, view of human sexuality and pornography. And despite this movie being about fucking, the sex jokes generally come off as playful and non-creepy. The film tends to focus on the ridiculousness of tropes in pornography, rather than the nitty-gritty of sex itself. For instance, a running gag through the early production of their film is Zack and Miri playfully bouncing off parody porn titles to each other. This is a game we all have played, and scenes like this manage to make it clear how pornography already plays a huge role in pop culture.

Of course, there are missteps. It is a Kevin Smith film after all. Zack and Miri Make a Porno shows that Kevin Smith’s tin ear for dialogue has not grown better. He seems to think that adding an expletive makes any utterance raw and profound. Consequently, there is curse words needlessly attached to every conversation. And this movie has a bad tendency for hollow, meaningless, and vapid commentary. There are too many cuts to Zack emphatically saying something superfluous like “bullshit” when the context already makes his one-word sentiment clear. And Kevin Smith’s writing is full of implausible characterizations. The high school reunion scene features people who have not seen each other for decades talking within seconds about their sexual frustrations. One can only wish that the conversations at actual high school reunions were that interesting. I also did not appreciate how intense scatological humor dropped out of nowhere late in the movie. I found that really gross.

More troubling than the dialogue are the numerous missed opportunities in Zack and Miri Make a Porno’s plot and structure. The entire premise of the movie (falling in love while being filmed having sex) provides a witty subversion of the norms of romantic comedies. Sex between the protoganists of a romantic comedy always has a deeper significance and sends the two down the road to romance. What happens when the sex takes place in public? It is therefore disappointing that, after Zack and Miri’s climactic sexual encounter, the movie does everything it can to restore romantic comedy norms. In fact, the scene itself has some disquieting notes. Miri refuses to take her bra off during her sex scene- a decision that the movie nervously jokes about and feels the need to explain. Do we really live in such a puritanical age where the heroine of a romantic comedy cannot show a bare breast without their reputation suffering? I am skeptical. Gwyneth Paltrow showed her nipples in Shakespeare in Love, and now sells recipes for quinoa granola to wine-sodded suburbanites. This simple decision to protect Miri’s “honor” illustrates that this movie is much more conservative, both in ideology and genre, than the title lets on. The remainder of the movie confirms this suspicion. The last act spends an embarrassing amount of time on Zack and Miri worrying if the other has cheated on them. It is a jarring decision to spend so much screen time obsessed with Zack and Miri’s faithfulness, especially given how the movie up to that point celebrates sexual liberty and promiscuity. And if you are curious, despite misunderstandings to the contrary, it is revealed that Zack and Miri have indeed not cheated on each other in their pre-ordained but unannounced relationship- another disappointing nod to generic norms. In the last scene, when Zack (mistakenly) believes Miri has been sleeping with someone else, he comes to the realization that it does not matter who she has slept with before; he loves her anyway. I wish the film would have made that insight the lesson of the film’s final act, rather than a momentary realization.

Despite its more conservative turn in the end, I still enjoyed Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It is far from a perfect movie; on the contrary, almost every scene reveals defects. But the movie manages to have its own style, its own kooky sense of the universe, that I cannot but love it.

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