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NY Times Reviews Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Defying a trend toward baffling abstraction in movie titles — “Synecdoche, New York”? “Quantum of Solace”? “The Secret Life of Bees”? — Kevin Smith has given his new opus a name that tells you exactly what it’s about.

Literal-mindedness has always been among Mr. Smith’s calling cards. His first film, about clerks, was called “Clerks.” And so it will hardly be shocking that “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is about two people, named Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), who make what my copy editors would prefer that I call a pornographic movie.

And really, in spite of an avalanche of verbal filth (and a smaller quantum of the visual variety), “Zack and Miri” is not very shocking at all.

Mr. Smith has been tinkering with the dirty-mind/soft-heart combination for quite some time, forming a link of sorts between the humanist sexual anarchy of John Waters and the smutty Victorianism of Judd Apatow. He and his characters revel in dialogue that riffs on body parts and bodily fluids, but Mr. Smith’s stories are bathed — metaphorically! — in syrup and schmaltz.

So “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” in spite of its sometimes tiresome, sometimes amusing lewdness, follows a gee-whiz romantic-comedy formula that would not be out of place on the Disney Channel. Two best friends who have always been in love with each other discover that … they have always been in love with each other. Granted, this revelation occurs while they are having sex in front of a camera, but it is so sweet and predictable that these potentially tawdry circumstances hardly matter.

Mr. Smith tries, with mixed results, both to rub our faces in the tawdriness and to erase it altogether. The movie wants to insist that pornography is a jolly, innocuous pursuit, but also to take refuge in a sincere, romantic traditionalism that is antithetical to the cynical, often playful sexual ethos of pornography. Mr. Smith is intent on making a love story, which is almost by definition the opposite of the kind of movie Zack and Miri set out to produce.

They are roommates, living in a run-down Pittsburgh apartment and in that treacherous stretch between the end of adolescence and the onset of maturity. Approaching their 10th high school reunion, Zack and Miri are broke, miserable and alienated. This has always been Mr. Smith’s comfort zone. He is a poet of failure, and Mr. Rogen is unmatched at playing reasonably nice, reasonably smart guys with minimal ambitions that they may nonetheless fail to realize.

Zack works in a Starbucks-like coffee shop alongside Delaney, a harried husband played by Craig Robinson (“The Office,” a show-stopping monologue in “Knocked Up”), who is fast becoming the most dependable comic counterpuncher in the business and who needs some bigger roles or a sitcom of his own right away. When Zack and Miri hatch their plan to climb out of debt by making a skin flick, Delaney becomes their producer.

A cast and crew materializes, including the real-life former porn star Traci Lords and the Kevin Smith stalwarts Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson, who signs on as director of photography.

The best moments come early, before “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” decides to wear its heart on its sleeve and keep everything else in its pants. Justin Long and Brandon Routh — Superman! — do some droll camping at the reunion, and Mr. Mewes uses his deadpan immunity to embarrassment to good effect.

Like Rosario Dawson in “Clerks 2,” Ms. Banks (who plays Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W.”) is forced to be funny on a pedestal. She has to be the nice girl with the naughty mouth, just uninhibited enough to play along with Zack’s schemes but not so daring as to tarnish his idealized image of her.

The gauzy sweetness that envelops the end of the movie is not unwelcome, but not very convincing either. The “porno” remains unfinished, and so does “Zack and Miri,” having — like most pornography, interestingly enough — thrown away an imaginative premise to get down to predictable, mechanical business. It’s as if Mr. Smith were a plumber who knocked at your door and then, against all reasonable expectations, insisted on fixing the sink.

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