As I sit down to write this review, Zack and Miri Make a Porno stands at 66% on the Tomatometer. Which means that rottentomatoes.com has certified it as “fresh” based on an accumulation of 119 reviews spanning everybody from the New Yorker to the Los Angeles Times. After scanning through all those reviews, Rotten Tomatoes staffers determined that 79 of 119 reviewers liked the movie. Loved it. Approved of it. Laughed all the way through it. Gave it a good review.
A bit of history: The reason all those reviews have already been published and I’m just now writing one for Plugged In Online has a lot to do with the title of the film in question. And the director. And the statements made by the director.
“Look, if I were a 13-year-old boy, and I saw [Zack and Miri Make a Porno] on cable back in 1983? Yes it would [make me masturbate],” Kevin Smith told salon.com. “Now, as a 13-year-old boy, if I saw this movie? It would not titillate me. I would simply go to the Internet and watch real people having real sex. How can you possibly say this is too erotically charged when it’s so obviously a comedy with people having over-the-top fake sex, when we can see examples of real sex at a keystroke?”
Is a Plugged In review needed for such a flick? Many edgy, sexually and/or violently extreme movies have come and gone in the past few years that we’ve decided not to review simply because they weren’t mainstream enough to spend much time on. They didn’t play at the mall multiplex. They didn’t rake in millions of dollars. They didn’t make a societal dent.
So we waited a few days to see what would become of Kevin Smith’s porno-minded project. It seemed like the kind of film that couldn’t possibly make more than a dollar or two in a handful of theaters.
But it turns out that it is playing at the mall. It is making millions ($10-plus million opening weekend). And it is making an impression—and not just on a small group of folks who’ve already seen far more in seedy porn houses or strip clubs. At the Monday morning (11:35 a.m.) showing I attended, a pair of young parents—complete with stroller and baby inside—sat one row behind me vainly trying to keep the crying to a minimum.
It doesn’t change their desire to make pornographic movies, but Zack and Miri do realize at one point that sex—even on a porn set—alters relationships and is a bigger deal than either of them want to admit. Each seemingly cares about the other—but, again, not enough to make better choices for longer than a few months (minutes) at a time.
Mockery, only. Zack’s friend rudely and sacrilegiously trumpets, “Greetings, have you heard about the good news of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”
Casting for the porn film involves Zack and his buddies ogling naked women (there’s one full-frontal scene), and asking them what sexual tricks they can do and what positions they prefer. Tricks include blowing soap bubbles with sexual body parts. Proclivities include oral and anal intercourse. Bestiality is dragged into the mix with verbal and visual jokes about Zack and a tiny dog.
Pre-production research involves going to a strip club, where the camera seeks out fully nude pole dancers and lap dancers “performing,” being touched by and touching patrons. Once the filming begins, a series of staged sex scenes involve explicit movements, sexual sounds, perverse sexual “arrangements,” dildos, obscene dialogue and prolonged nudity (breast, side, back). After the project wraps, there are several shots of male genitalia.
Encounters and conversations revolve around adultery, homosexuality, sex toys, porn (of course), homosexual porn, masturbation, mutual masturbation, fellatio, attempted solo fellatio, anal sex, public nudity, emasculation, constipation and defecation. (Onscreen, a cameraman’s face gets doused.) It’s a seemingly never-ending and excruciatingly explicit parade of sexual gags.
“The two areas they focused on [when the MPAA initially gave the film an NC-17 rating] were … gratuitous thrusting in the first porno sequence between Katie Morgan and Jason Mewes,” Kevin Smith told CNN, “and the other was what we’ll call the egregious bodily fluid shot.”
A hockey game gets violent with punches thrown. Guys pay to fire paintballs at Zack’s crotch.
More than 200 f-words and 50 s-words. Scores of each are used sexually. The latter is also used scatologically. In addition, there are 50-plus crude and obscene expressions related to sexual acts and body parts (of both genders), ranging from “c–k,” “t-t” and “p—y” to repeated uses of the c-word. God’s and Jesus’ names are forcefully abused. (God’s is combined with “d–n.”) The n-word is also carelessly thrown around.
One of the film’s favorite pastimes is throwing around “creative” (and usually obscene) porn industry-style names for the people having sex and for the films they’re in.
Zack and Miri live to get drunk. They even go to a dreaded high school reunion because they know they’ll be able to get sloshed there. And, indeed, they do. (Miri says she’s going to binge till she passes out.) A random guy off the street wanders onto the porn set so drunk he can barely stay standing.
Getting high and doing crack are mentioned. One of the “porn stars” smokes.
Marriage is deemed too absurd and mutually hurtful for it to be even vaguely considered as an option when two people fall in love. Ugly racist retorts involve African-Americans, Indians and whites. Rancid racial stereotypes are forced onto African-Americans and Indians. To keep warm when their electricity is shut off, Zack and Miri light a fire in a trash can—in their apartment. When the power is restored, they throw the still-burning container off their balcony. To shoot their movie, Zack and Miri sneakily (and illegally) co-opt the coffee shop Zack works at.
Zack is continually praised for being a visionary and a savvy entrepreneur as he works the porn film project from idea phase to completion. Miri approves of his newfound drive and ambition. And the two eventually realize that they love each other after having “amazing” sex in front of the camera. During the credits, an exceedingly vulgar offer is made to audiences for them to have “professional” movies made of their sexual activities.
A running joke involves Zack walking in on Miri when she’s using the bathroom. Miri drinks beer from a bottle that she finds out has a cigarette butt in it.
Calling Zack and Miri Make a Porno “sweet, if raunchy,” the Salt Lake Tribune establishes the fact that it features “ample nudity and plenty of talk about sex.” Then Sean P. Means writes, “If you’re offended by such things, you may get off the bus now. For the rest of us, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is another example of how well [Kevin] Smith writes scripts that are both scathingly funny and sweetly romantic.”
What was Smith’s inspiration for his “scathingly funny and sweetly romantic” movie that so appeals to “the rest of us”? In his words, “I’m a morning porn peruser, and not for the titillation factor. I just find it interesting. I’ll go read Google News, I’ll go read Guardian UK, go read our website, and then, if I’ve got nothing else, I will just peruse porn sites, because it’s an ever-expanding world. Just when you think you’ve seen the most outlandish clip you could ever see, somebody introduces something new. I just check in periodically just to see how far porn has gone in my absence.”
How far mainstream movies have gone in Smith’s presence seems to be partially a result of his casual relationship with pornography. (He’s already responsible for Clerks, Clerks II, Dogma and Chasing Amy.) But he’s not the only reason movies have strayed as far as they have. Easy access to hyper-sexualized material is changing the way our world works. Large numbers of non-Hollywood types from the Bible Belt to the coasts have embraced salacious and pornographic images as normal and even OK.
Talking about why more and more teens are taking and distributing (to classmates) sexy or nude photos of themselves, Carmine Sarracino, co-author of The Porning of America, states, “It’s simply an emulation. The more important point is that they get porn whether or not they go looking for it because the whole culture is shaped by porn. They get porn through the mainstream culture. It’s a symptom of a much larger phenomenon that’s happening.”
Smith would like to dismiss all concerns about his contribution to the problem by saying, “Anybody not inclined to see a movie with Porno in the title is not going to see it, so it kind of regulates itself to a degree. And anybody who is going is not going to be surprised by what they see.”
He convinced the MPAA (via an appeals process that involves screening the film for theater owners) with that logic, successfully urging panel members to change their initial NC-17 rating to an R. But it’s obvious he hasn’t convinced Carmine Sarracino. And he hasn’t convinced me, either.
To clarify, in case the point has not already been sufficiently made: There’s nothing sweetly romantic about two people engaging in sex to make money, then realizing that it was so satisfying, they must be lifelong soul mates.
A postscript: The New York Post reports that Salt Lake City’s Megaplex Theaters refused to show Zack and Miri Make a Porno, expressing concern that “it’s very close to an NC-17 with its graphic nudity and graphic sex.”