Monday, October 27, 2008

It's never sunny in Pittsburgh

My schedule hasn't given me time to catch advanced screenings lately, so in the past couple of months I've missed the likes of Choke, Brideshead Revisited, Flash of Genius, The Duchess, and The Secret Life of Bees. Well, did I really MISS them? Only time (and DVD) will tell.

I hesitate to call Zack and Miri Make a Porno my triumphant return to reviewing, but I will say that it is NOT Kevin Smith's triumphant return to filmmaking. It worked for many in the audience, judging from their laughter, but I just wasn't buying it.

The platonic roommates in the title -- saying "titular" just sounds wrong in this context -- struggle to make ends meet, sharing a crappy car and a crappy life in a frozen Pittsburgh suburb. (To this Southwest-based viewer, their harsh winter lives felt completely foreign.) After an unusual encounter at their high school reunion -- the dreamy jock now lives in Los Angeles with an adult film actor -- Zack (Seth Rogen) decides that amateur movies are just the ticket that he and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) need to have a better life.

So they round up a cast and crew, and Miri gradually becomes impressed with Zack's previously unseen talent for leading and entertaining others. By the very nature of their endeavor, their relationship is forced into a less than platonic direction, and we're left to wonder what this will do to them. Put in the best possible terms, it's like a voyeuristic When Harry Met Sally...: can a man and a woman remain friends once on-camera sex gets in the way?

You can already draw some obvious parallels between Rogen's character and Kevin Smith, aside from the beards, heavyset builds, and the shared hockey love. After all, what is Clerks but an amateur movie that became a ticket to a better life? And what isn't appealing about a slacker who finds his calling as a humorous commentator on life? Semi-autobiographical situations are not new ground for the writer/director -- Chasing Amy was probably about fellow indie star Guinevere Turner -- so you'd think that in Rogen he's found a new Mewes muse for his continued moviemaking success.

One problem: whatever charm I saw in previous Smith films is not to be found here. Those movies folded cleverness and wit into positively filthy dialogue that had the potential to definitively alter the viewer. (For me, the number 37 has forever lost its innocence.) In contrast, this movie has him operating out of his comfort zone: the filth here is visual, not verbal. Yes, there is nudity: certainly not as much as you'd think, considering the subject matter, but enough for the writing to take a back seat.

I realize that raucous film comedy has changed a bit in the past few years, where the sight gag of the full frontal male is now the unfortunate norm. And maybe Smith is just trying to fit in. But he (and exec producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein) should have tried a little harder to remind us of their 1990s Miramax glory days.

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