Writer-director Kevin Smith's latest comedy, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," feels at times as if it's straining too hard against its own limitations: In an effort to increase the edginess, Mr. Smith has taken the standard romantic comedy and raunched it up without really altering any romcom cliches. The effect is uneven, although not altogether unentertaining.
In fact, "Zack and Miri" can be downright hilarious. There are a number of gut-bustingly funny individual scenes, but the narrative as a whole lacks thematic cohesion. It especially hits the skids when the title characters (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) begin work on their adult film. Mr. Smith seems content to push crassness as a substitute for actual genre-bending.
Faced with a mountain of unpaid bills, lifelong platonic friends and housemates Zack and Miri are inspired by a depressing high school reunion to pay off their debts by making an adult film. Their dreams of financial independence are based on the somewhat flimsy assumption that their classmates would want to watch two people they barely knew in high school have sex. On the Implausibility Scale, this falls somewhere between "average Michael Bay plot" and "John McCain presidency."
The high school reunion is one of the aforementioned gut-busters. The overall tone of the scene is played to perfection as our outcast protagonists try to act as if they're better than their gathered confreres even though both are underemployed and teetering on bankruptcy. Throw in a fight between a gay couple after Miri tries to pick up one of them, and you've got a memorably hilarious scene.
Hitting up friends and co-workers for their endeavor's funding and labor, the duo begin to realize that their relationship isn't quite as platonic as they once thought. Zack and Miri come to understand that they're more than friends, but that realization is tested by constant temptation on the set and elsewhere. Although determined to treat their on-screen encounter as "just sex," they soon realize that sex is never "just" anything.
Except when it is. Mr. Smith's overall message is mixed, an effort to avoid moralizing while maintaining the film's core point (that sex means something). That tension is untenable - "Zack and Miri" tries to have its cake and eat it, too.
Of course, if you're just looking for gross-out gags and envelope-pushing, you've found the right movie. Mr. Smith famously submitted this movie several times to the folks at the Motion Picture Association of America; after receiving a couple of NC-17 ratings, "Zack and Miri" scored an R.
A critic of the rating process - Mr. Smith was featured prominently in the anti-MPAA documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" - he no longer gets to complain about the decisions the MPAA hands down. This is, quite easily, the filthiest film to play in mainstream theaters for some time. Keep the kiddies away from this one, parents.
However, if you're of age and don't mind seeing naughty bits, there are plenty of laughs to be had in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."
TITLE: "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"
RATING: R (For strong crude sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity and pervasive language)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Kevin Smith
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
WEB SITE: zackandmiri.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS