29 October 2008 | Chris Knipp
Harvey and Kevin make a love story
Roommates and longtime friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) meet a gay couple (Brandon Routh and Justin Long) at a high school reunion held on the eve of Thanksgiving. One of these guys (Routh) is so handsome and charming Miri crudely and of course futilely propositions him on the spot. Zack happens to talk to his lover (Long, hilariously deep-voiced and confident). It turns out the gay men produce and act in their own profitable line of gay porn films. They really are good-looking and have it together, and Zack and Miri, being so broke their electricity and water have been cut off, decide to make a porno of their own. The plot twist, obvious in conventional romantic comedy terms, is that the process of shooting a sex scene with them in it makes Zack and Miri, who, we don't know exactly why, have contented themselves with hasty, meaningless sex with others up to now, realize--after a slight delay--that they've really loved each other along.
Smith's use of Seth Rogen in a schlub-wins-pretty-girl comedy (there's no doubt that Elizabeth Banks is pretty) links him with Judd Apatow's productions, but let's hope he isn't swallowed up by the Apatow factory. Apatow can do anything, but in spite of the success of 'Knocked Up,' 'Super Bad,' 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' and 'Pineapple Express,' I wish he'd go back to producing really good failed TV series like 'Freaks and Geeks' and 'Undeclared,' where Seth got started and Judd gave birth to all the good comedy.
Kevin Smith's continuing appeal is his own. It lies in his faithfulness to his New Jersey "Askewniverse" regional working-class outlook and in his ability to call a spade a spade, "spade," in this case, being a string of four-letter words. He has never strayed far from his basic concerns even when more money came his way, as it did as soon as his under-$30,000 debut production 'Clerks' was snapped up by Miramax and feted at Sundance and Cannes. Smith's movies are frank and contemporary, outrageous and funny. Above all they're sui generis, a quality achieved through adhering closely to favorite tropes and locales and a posse of pals.
His dead-end mallrats entering their thirties without accomplishment or future speak truth, and the best things about his movies has always been the dialogue, which is spiky and arresting and nonstop and alive, even if he avoids polish so studiously that the lines aren't as memorable as they might be. Or is it just that I'm too old to be fully tuned in to the language, even though I understand it? Relationships and situations get honest treatment, even though they're hardly explored in depth. He's also good at politics and religion, as in 'Dogma', which took things a step beyond 'Clerks.' Raised as an Irish Catholic, Smith delighted in insulting the Church, but the Catholic League didn't take his provocations lightly. Sometimes drawing on Ben Afleck and Matt Damon and other celebs, he's kept going back to the same crew of actor-friends and characters, including Jason Lee, Brian O'Halloran, Mr. Affleck, Betty Aberlin, Jeff Anderson, Walter Flanagan, Ernest O'Donnell, or course Kevin Smith himself ("Silent Bob"), and my own favorite and the most frequent of all, the provocative yet needy Jason Mewes. Smith's last movie was 'Clerks II,' which much like Zack, highlighted a sexually outrageous act in a shoddy fast food joint. A good addition here is Zack's black cohort from his place of work, Delaney (Craig Robinson of the US TV "The Office"), who has great timing and delivery, and becomes the porno's producer.
In a way Zack even directly reenacts what Smith actually did when he shot 'Clerks'--he made a movie at night in the New Jersey convenience store where he was then working in the daytime. The crew in Zack wind up making their porno at night in the non-Starbucks coffee shop called Bean-N-Gone where Zack and Delaney work. Predictably, a guy (Tyler Labine) comes in in the wee hours to buy a cup of coffee so he can drive home. He's so drunk he doesn't notice that one of the new porn recruits and Jason Mewes are having sex on a platform in front of the counter. This time, even though it's put off and partly an afterthought, the main characters not only find love but success in free enterprise--with their friends.
Smith's dialogue never falters. But I confess to an increasing nostalgia for the purity and simplicity of the original Clerks. That had a promise, a sense of how ordinary guys could be witty and smart, a sense that though nothing was happening, something momentous still might. It hasn't. 'Zack and Miri' doesn't take us any further than 'Clerks II' did; I think 'Clerks II' even had cleverer dialogue. This time down-and-dirty language is beginning to feel wearisome. It's beginning to feel forced. People don't talk that way all the time--at least women don't. But that doesn't mean Smith's fans are burned out. The Weinstein brothers have picked up this one, and nobody's going to lose any money. Last time I compared Kevin Smith to Eric Rohmer. That may seem far fetched at first, due to Rohmer's delicacy vs. Smith's gross-out factor. But both filmmakers are essentially perpetual adolescents who write good dialogue. Both of them go back to the same themes every time. Rohmer doesn't make a masterpiece every time and neither does Smith. But you keep coming back. I still like this vulgarian indie auteur.