zack and miri sit through a really predictable movie, and it turns out all right

I swore off Kevin Smith a while ago. No, not the late hunky portrayer of Ares on Xena.

I’m talking about the slovenly film chronicler of suburban sentiment, ante-upping raunch, low-wage ennui, and lo-fi amusement. I always find Smith’s films maddening, because the refreshing observational humor from people who don’t usually get their own movies and insightful criticisms of overrated pop culture phenoms never quite make up for the maudlin climaxes and truly awful direction. The man cannot block a scene or compose an interesting shot to save his life.

But the devils at Filmspotting coaxed me back into the theater for Clerks II, and yes, all right, I was pleasantly surprised. It was wittier, more poignant, and more handsomely staged than any of his previous films, and clearly something had clicked over in the Smith brainpan — he actually put on a musical number as buoyant and fun as a Spike Jonze music video:

Smith’s weaknesses as a writer hadn’t entirely disappeared — the end of Clerks II is painfully earnest and woefully ineffective. But up to that point, it works quite well, and the re-examination of old (and at this point cultishly familiar) characters turns out to be quite touching.

But was that wistful midlife reflection on his youthful debut the last trick in Smith’s bag? Or was it the beginning of a more fruitful, more technically polished mature period?

Jury’s still out. Zack and Miri Make a Porno‘s titular characters, platonic friends from childhood, are forced to extreme(ly erotic) measures by desperate economic straits. You know where this is going, of course — nobody’s going to be platonic or “friends” by the end. I wish I could say the whole thing wasn’t transparent from beginning to end, but, uh….

So the romantic plotline’s a bit of a wash. But what’s lovely about the movie, what makes it worth seeing, is that the first-we’re-friends-and-then-we-fuck plot is just the hook, just the thing to pull you along to the places Smith really wants to go, the sights he really wants to show you. And what he really wants to show you is how making movies, even terribly mediocre movies, is the most wonderful thing in the world.

Sure, it’s mildly interesting that Zack’s finally going to sleep with his best friend. You know, interesting like Dawson’s Creek. But the real excitement in ZAMMAP is watching Zack grow into his role as a director and producer. At first reluctant and only in it for the money, he discovers, as he assembles the bits and pieces of his porno from the meagerest of resources, an inventive and resourceful soul he didn’t know resided within him. He’s an obvious Smith stand-in, of course, and Smith has some fun with his fans and his own image by having Zack begin to stage a Star Wars knock-off before circumstances force him to use the materials of his own life to complete the porno. It’s a wonderful move, an acknowledgement (written in big, fleshy porn letters) that Smith’s real value isn’t his admittedly funny pop culture noodling but his honest affection for working stiffs and their deadbeat hangers-on. More than any other filmmaker, maybe, Smith gets what it means to work a crap job and have little or no hope for the future. He’s not kill-yourself-sad about it; he just acknowledges the facts. But Zack, like Smith himself, begins to realize that by making art about their lives he can change and elevate those working stiffs and deadbeats. And not serious, pompous, bag-in-the-wind art, but funny, lively, crappy art. You can’t help but be charmed by a guy who compares his indie oeuvre to a lame homemade porno.

A special nod to Craig Robinson, who’s great in everything he does. And Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes, Smith’s longtime pals, haven’t really grown as actors, but they now glide across their limited ranges with comfortable assurance. And for the first time, Smith’s written an ending that doesn’t overplay it. I don’t want to oversell this, but it’s a damn nice movie all around.

I mentioned a few posts back that I was planning to go to the Aero to watch some Abbott and Costello movies for Halloween. That was a really bad idea. They were showing Halloween-appropriate A&C movies — Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott And Costello Meet The Killer — but those turn out, sadly, to be the unfunny ones. Abbott and Costello are perfectly capable of being funny when given their heads:

These bits, which depend on the audience to be bright and engaged and able to follow convoluted misuses of math, are gold. But they’re not from the movies I saw, which seemed to rely almost entirely on Lou Costello’s collection of aghast faces, nervous moans, and spit takes for their laughs. To his credit, Costello often makes it work. But this leaves Abbott with nothing to do except uncomfortably play at a kind of heroic role, something he’s ill-suited for by both temperament and training. Blech. A waste of time. Search YouTube for more of their good old bits instead.

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