After humiliating themselves at their 10-year high school reunion, destitute pals Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are forced to examine their dreary lives. Facing homelessness, the pair decides to make an adult film to pay the bills, after an unexpected pep talk from a gay porn star (Justin Long). Crewing up with friends (Craig Robinson, Jeff Anderson) and uniquely gifted performers (Traci Lords, Jason Mewes, and Katie Morgan), the squad begins their porn odyssey in the lobby of a local coffee shop, with the climax pitting Zack and Miri in their first sexual encounter. Eager to make some money, yet reluctant to reveal their true feelings for each other, Zack and Miri commence filming, ripping open emotions they never knew they had.
When 2004's "Jersey Girl" was greeted with tepid reaction from critics and anemic box office, I think it stung Smith more than he ever let on. "Zack and Miri" comes across as a calculated attempt to merge the sensitivity of the unjustly dismissed "Jersey Girl" with the harder-edged comedies he's built a brand name with, in a manner that furthers his directorial career while still feeding the faithful what they've come to expect. At first glance, the film seems a slam-dunk for Smith, as it plays to his lovable sense of verbal mischief and visual minimalism, padded with a cast of familiar faces. Yet "Zack and Miri" is vacuous effort that never soars as high as the plot promises, and soon gives way to rushing flood waters of formula that Smith has always been more than ready to slap around before.
I'm all for Smith challenging himself as a filmmaker, taking his career in exciting new directions, but "Zack and Miri" is a step backwards. It's a sex comedy without a steady flow of laughs, reducing Smith's tongue-twisting dialogue (his remarkable fingerprint) to a series of monotone F-words and a constant, tiresome milking of lampoon porn titles (the winner is "Star Whores"). The sex part of the equation is equally as bridled, with a few shock glimpses of male genitalia to add some spice to the flavorless stew, while the rest of the movie begs for the NC-17 treatment to elevate into something inspired (you've seen all the backstage, low-budget porn jokes a hundred times before). Smith is off his game with this picture, carefully inching the unsavory elements of the script into the film to avoid offending with a plot that should offend, or, at the very least, sprint towards an all-out farce.
Smith visualizes something romantic with his porn comedy, following a dispiriting screenwriting 101 structure that has our leads finding attraction during filming, yet cannot muster the courage to compose any lovesick confessions. To his credit, Smith achieves the desired motivation for this plot turn through a marvelous use of music and expressive close-ups during the titular bout of fornication. It's only where Smith takes the development that's a cause for concern and "Zack and Miri" doesn't waste much time before it starts consuming established romantic comedy clichés, and not ironically. Smith wants to melt a few hearts, but it's executed in a synthetic, melodramatic manner. Even Smith appears embarrassed by his employment of worthless convention, throwing in some literal, splattery defecation to snap the audience awake.
I hate to be hard on "Zack and Miri." After all, Rogen and Banks are talented, sharp performers, and while they don't share the greatest chemistry in the world, they know how to sell the cockeyed whimsy Smith is aiming for. Supporting turns from Lords, Mewes, and Long have a playfulness the rest of the movie abandons to make useless kissy faces. Superman himself, Brandon Routh, even shows up in a cameo as Miri's object of desire and acquits himself nicely to the land of comedy. Positives are certainly here: the cast is solid, the wintry Pittsburgh locations communicate the claustrophobic debacle the characters find themselves in, and Smith does land a few edgy one-liners to put on his mantle before they're improvisationed away by Rogen's motormouth.
It makes sense that Smith wants a mass-audience hit after "Jersey Girl" failed, but he's spread himself too thin on "Zach and Miri," wasting an opportune premise for broad, generous filth to play lethargic date night wrangler. Kevin Smith is capable of such wit and cinematic generosity, and while the picture isn't a disaster, it fails to generate any life of its own. Much like a real porno, "Zack and Miri" is only great for a few minutes at a time, and then monumental disinterest sets in.