RIORI Vol 3, Installment 87: Kevin Smith’s “Zack And Miri Make A Porno” (2008)



The Players…

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, with Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, Ricky Mabe, Brandon Routh and Justin Long.


The Story…

Zack and Miri are the best of buds, childhood friends, roomies. Inseparable.

And very, very broke. Their financial squeeze gets so bad that their apartment’s utilities shut off, one by one, in the dead of winter. Dire straits. How can they cough up the cash to make ends meet, let alone survive?

Grouchy Zack muses one night there are plenty of people out there who make a mint without working at all. Especially actors. Hey, maybe he and Miri can make a quick buck to set things right by making a cheapo movie.

Miri scoffs. A movie? Really? What kind of movie?

…You read the title, right?


The Rant…

I might have told this story before. If so, forgive me. After over 100 installments here at RIORI the memory gets blurry. Gets more difficult to separate the chaff from the chaff. Still, I think the following are good stories, and might, might be relevant to this week’s assignment. Here’s hoping with crossed fingers and fewer hurled beer bottles. Am wearing a hockey helmet now, BTW. Make up your own jokes.

Back in college in the ancient 90s I was a barista. Real deal and no visor to be found. Local cafe, owner owned and operated. Sumptuous temple for fair trade coffee well before Whole Foods raped your wallet dry. Back then working there had a coolness cachet, minus the embroidered apron. Scammed my way in due to being a good customer. One of the few favors my then girlfriend did for me was bringing me to the place on our first date. It fast became my hangout for both studies and chewing the fat, getting wired all the while. We may talk about the other favors she gave me later, you dogs.

She swallowed. Moving on.

I donned the non-apron my sophomore year. Most of classes ended around 4, so I had the evenings free, which is when the mercurial owners plunked me behind the line. Let me tell you, working under a pair of recovering junkies installed quite a serious work ethic in me, the FNG, not seen since a binge watch of “My Little Pony.”

I have no idea what that means. Neither did they. Seems fitting nonetheless.

The joint was a fishbowl; a demented microcosm of campus life inaction. A good thing. It was this aspect that attracted my then squeeze and her urging to hang out there. Like I mentioned, a true favor. And I am approaching a point here. Figured I’d politely warn you in advance this time out. You’re welcome; please stay awake.

I’ll spare any introduction to the demented “Cheers”-esque cast of regulars that frequented the place (at least in specific). The joint was called the Coffee Cave. Quaint. It squatted in the basement of the local liquor/lottery ticket/cigarette/sodomy vendor. Beneath this haven of sin was a low-slung cafe delightfully reeking of spent cigarettes, fresh baked scones, high end java and endless prattle about courses, bookended by the profs often holding court and in need of a fix. Japanese exchange students holed up with the Anglo architect study. The Arabian business uber-grad with the large, friendly who shamelessly brought his own lunch to the cafe (which irked the owners to no end). Drunken sorority babes every Friday eve requesting elaborate drinks while the winggirl snorted coke off the ceramic top of the “ladies'” room toilet. The homeless demanding said scones, and a wailing wall for budding and failed romances alike. Good times. Saw some things. Learned some things.

One of the things I saw was a movie at my girlfriend’s apartment. The Cave had no TV. At her behest; raving about it and demanding me to see it. It was so me. It was so Mark! It was a quest, for truth and fun. So she planted me in chair, duct taped my eyelids open and made me watch Clerks.

Thanks, babe. Lather rinse repeat.

I’m not gonna say that Kevin Smith’s Clerks was some sort of revelation. But Jess was right. It was so me. It was so Mark. I watched it many times between Coffee Cave jaunts, occasional classes and ever dwindling BJ sessions. Kidding. I watched Clerks over and over often.

But it was true. Learning to serve the hoi polloi was akin to scenes of frustration Dante and Randall had serving the trogs that hoved into the Quick Stop. Indie coffee shops were all the rage back in the Clinton years. Had the aforementioned cachet of cool, to which I lay the thanks or blame on Jen Aniston and her dippy, very white crew from Friends (mostly blame. Those stiff hairstyles, ugh). Every cloud has a silver whatever. That fact, and me being horribly droll about my new passing parade’s antics. What, me worry? What began as a comfy job swiftly became a life awakening in the Cave. No health bennies, to be sure. But the place did have one killer benefit (besides free espresso).

Enter Mark. Him Randall to my Dante. Love at first bitch.

I met him one night at the Cave. Might’ve been Sunday, the slow night. Mark was a grad student, tax law. Head in hand poring over some massive tome that smelled of manipulative English. Beige ballcap planted firmly on his head hanging over said textbook, a thick folder at his elbow vomiting paper. I roused him.

“You Mark?”

He snapped his neck awake and stared at me. I introduced myself.

“I’m riding shotgun with you tonight.”

“You’re the new guy…”

From simple greetings, bonds are borne.

I’ll spare some more details (save my “inspirational” schpiel about colleges parse out degrees of esteem while others withhold info based on tuition. He liked that). To wit, Mark was the Yin to my Yang. No surpirse he was a Clerks devotee also. We had a time recreating scenes from Clerks a la our own unique élan, quoting the movie’s lines ad nauseum:

“Cute cat. What’s its name?” “Annoying customer.”

“This job would be great if it weren’t for the f*cking customers…”

“Title does not dictate behavior.”

“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

And so on. Our quoting got old to the crowd fast. Savages.

I was the cranky straight man, he was the loose cannon. Our scenes against each other were wondrous. Definitely a “you shoulda been there” scene. The shenanigans were jokes for ourselves alone. If a person outside played along, they’d give us a tip. If not they’d walk out in a huff, ordering nothing and leaving us two stooges laughing, same shared joy. Like I alluded, the owners were odd ducks. They suffered us goons well. They had to. Maintenance at the clinic and all.

Mark and I devised all sorts of gags. Alternating between jockeying the counter jibing customers and our homework assignments (read: goofing off), we would get all vaudeville on the pulsing flow of caffeinated humanity. Here’s a taste of Mark and our theatre. The counter where the register was was oddly tall. We had to lean into it to serve an order. I had to step onto the baseboard to make eye contact. This design oddity gave Mark and I an idea. Hence the levitation trick. Ready?

The owners had a pair of stools. They could sit in relative comfort serving their marks. When they were away, Mark and I used them as props. For the levitation trick. Always guaranteed a tip. Always. Here’s the setup. Recall the high counters. I would perch myself atop one of the stools, heels into the crosspieces between the legs. Mark stood a few feet away, warming up his “psychic powers,” which involved a lot of him adjusting his cap just right. To balance his chi, of course.

Copperfield stabbed his hands at me and with great strain induced me to wobbly “float” behind the high counter, trying to balance my gangly self on the crosspiece. The show culminated on me losing my balance and crashing on the floor. Sometimes it was deliberate. Always got a laugh, even from the customers. Nickels came pouring in.

Not all was fun and games. A certain nasty contingent always descended on our grotto every, every Friday and Saturday night: the aforementioned drunken sorority girls, schooled by the manners of Sex And The City. Multiple extras faded into the cityscape yet still on the set. Their 15 minutes. Here we went:

(flip of the hair) “I’d like a decaf half-caf mocha latte with cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg. Don’t forget the foam, and not too much. Skim milk, please. And don’t forget the mutton scraps.”

Sleepy-eyed me or Mark would slowly rotate towards the vacuum carafes filled with house blend, stagger for a house mug and plop it before the Carrie Bradshaw wannabe.

“Buck fifty. Try it.” I’d slink away and jack up the volume on the beater tape player that provided fractured ambiance to the Cave. My selection was early Replacements. Mark loved ska. The girls cowered at both.

“This wasn’t what I asked for (sniff).”

“It’s what you need. And I know what you need.” Grin.

Squeaking and fleeing. Stil got a tip, TP dragged by a heel.

And so on.

Mark and I became fast friends. Study buddies. Drinking buddies. Even dueling Dr Phils regarding romance. He hated my girlfriend. I envied his fiancee. We both agreed women were nuts, and would never appreciate the wisdom of Randall.

Why the heck am I telling you this? Two reasons. First, the right kind of movie can draw to people together, like iron filings to a magnet. C’mon, how many times have you gotten into a debate about a certain movie, its pros and cons with another cinephile? Very rarely does such fevered didactics result in fisticuffs, drunk or otherwise drunk. Boom. You make a fast friend (and a swift summation of their personality) going over the well trod territory that is The Godfather, Taxi Driver, MASH, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, yes, even Clerks. I’m not comparing Kevin Smith’s opus to slackerism to those cinematic pinnacles, but mention the flick and here comes the gasoline to your book of matches. Agree to disagree? Perhaps, but a feeling of kindred spirits almost always come calling.

Second, films such as Clerks sort of serve as a kind of acid test as to who you—and/or your friends—are. It’s like a kind of malign Kinsey report. I’m not talking sexual positions, but rather exposure of the idful aspects of one’s personalty, shoved away until the proper valve is released. Drunk or otherwise drunk.

*klonk*

Hey! A full one! Thanks, ladies!

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that certain films speak to certain audiences. And what they take away can be terribly influential on their worldview. Clerks did for Mark and I, as it did for hundreds of wage slaves in the vast wastes of America.

However, a filmmaker’s voice can often become a sounding board for its devotees. It can sometimes get toxic, making fans into cyphers. We all know someone like Dante Hicks. We very well may be Dante Hicks. But not every cultish Clerks fan can be Dante; they ain’t fans anymore, but lacking a personalty and super glued to their pet films. Examples may include Star Wars, Star Trek, Game Of Thrones, X-Files and Kevin Smith disciples.

Sometimes as a director, in the face of their own success must either shed an audience (the one that made them a household name and stupid rich) and branch out or succumb to their own Scylla and Charybdis, sally forth and churn out product with their naked signature. Many great directors have reinvented themselves many times over and have found success without compromising their vision. Spielberg (of course), Scorsese, Zemekis, Eastwood, Kubrick and Altman to name a few. Hell even John Waters and John Carpenter wandered away from doggie poo and Kurt Russell eventually.

In the shadow of Clerks accomplishments, Smith has been making the same movie ever since, with varying degrees of success. And beyond the social structure the Quick Stop invited, Smith became a victim of his own vision. Having Jay and Silent Bob guest in virtually every Red Bank movie didn’t help either.

No conversations needed between dweebs, Smith has a signature that he’s become a prisoner of. Comic books, Star Wars, f*cked up sexual innuendos, weed and the wonder and versatility of vaginas. This has become his oeuvre, much to the delight of teenage/college age mallrats everywhere.

So. With this week’s installment, does Smith rise above or keep on slumming? Or perhaps something more sinister and calculating?

Let’s just say it’s rough being a victim of your own success…


It sucks being broke. Despite hard you labor at your sh*ttastic, menial job, barely hovering over minimum wage, you walk away with hemorrhoids, pennies and a hefty unpaid bar tab. Gets even more difficult when you gotta mutually shoulder the bills with another broke-ass wage slave who happens to be your roomie. And your best bud.

This is Zack’s (Rogen) ugly mantra he carries around all day. It’s not too far removed from his best bud Miri’s (Banks) mindset. Childhood friends, been through thick and thin ever since grammar school. Now as adults, their flat on edge of being disconnected it’s now white agony in the wallet. No shiny lemonade stand on the corner is gonna fix their mess. They face facts, they’re losers, broke and behind the eight ball.

One fateful eve, Zack and Miri attend their high school reunion, if only revel in their peers’ crappy lives at the open bar. Mostly for the open bar. Miri secretly harbors her crush with the studly Bobby (Routh). Her ultimate goal is to score with him. Zack’s quarry is just the bar. While he quaffs his beer he strikes up a conversation with the creepy Brandon (Long). Turns out he’s a porn star and makes sh*tloads of money in his chosen profession. And is also Bobby’s boyfriend.

(fast forward a few miserable, embarassing hours)

Zack and Miri are crying in their beers at the local watering hole. Zack laments on their lack of funds some more, bitching how that f*ggot Brandon is a pervert. A rich pervert. Miri just whines over Bobby. Then Zack comes up with a daring plan to get them out of poverty.

We should make a porno!”

Miri scoffs, but they both want heat and water. According to Brandon making a porno on the cheap is easy, and can be very lucrative.

So what could possibly go wrong…?


We’re probably all familar by now with Smith’s irreverent style of filmmaking. It’s the tenet upon which I slam pimply fanboys. Yep, “irreverent” is the watchword of Smith’s style. It was the column upon which the empire was built. It also might be why Mallrats made any money. I’m still hoping it was for Stan Lee’s cameo.

But again, a filmmaker’s signature can only work for so long. Like I noted Speilberg et al effortlessly switched gears many a time with some good results. Unlike Smith’s naked muse, those guys had their vision on a string, which threaded through all their works in a subtle, background style. Smith’s end is Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. Go along for the ride, you cretins! You want art? Come and get it! If you consider finger painting art. Up on the fridge it’ll go.

And like magnets to a fridge, Zack follows the same template that Clerks established. Don’t know ’bout you but I outgrew Clerks‘ schtick years ago. Hopefully a lot of those absent-minded fanboys jumped ship a while ago also. Played against Smith’s Zack he defiantly screams no. Smith is like Willy Wonka here. What you’re about to ingest is decidedly not good for you. Come along for the ride, you innocents.

Um, the innocents grew up. We saw Zack coming from a mile away. And we were high AF.

Besides being a retread of Smith’s well worn signature, Zack tries to shoehorn a Jerry Maguire-esque warm fuzzy feeling shrouded with being vile. Give the people what they want, despite the people outgrew Bluntman And Chronic back in the late 90s. Smith is deaf to this.

Zack is a cipher. Clerks lite, wrapped up in a cute romcom. Before I stroke the blade across my bilious strop, let me point out something about Smith’s signature I could never ignore in his films, including the good ones: duality between the leads. An existential Abbott and Costello bit.

Keeping in mind the classic “Who’s On First?” The whole key to the act is the frustation Bud and Lou have with miscommunication. A simple setup, but the bit’s hilarious (and probably spawned Three’s Company for ill or for ill). It’s all left hand/right hand, and the crowd is easily lured into the joke. And really it’s a simple setup, as is Zack. The major difference is that “Who’s On First?” requires your attention. With Zack all it requires is nodding. The way Smith drives his characters is nothing new since Clerks (all right, maybe Chasing Amy. I’ll give that one a pass). We know where we’re going, and Smith is straining to be clever; his irreverence schtick is wearing thin.

Zack we find is a crossbreed of Clerks. It plays like a slacker-meets-white trash rmeta ewrite of Chasing Amy, minus the lesbionics. It’s like ten years later. Kevin, get a new muse already. And Abbott and Costello don’t count; funny folks have been ripping them off for decades. Go ask Mitch Hedberg. Oh yeah, you can’t. He’s dead. As well as Smith’s schtick, hopelessly entrenched in the 90s. Like Mark and me. Not a good endorsement.

Neither is this: Zack is too patchy. There’s this slapdash feel to film, precious little segue between scenes and acts. Felt like a lot of first takes were used that required a second. Or third. Or never. Who edited this? The Red Bull, uh, bull? Guess Smith wanted to push the spontaneity of the movie (let’s face it: imminent poverty’ll make you think on your feet tout suite). And as for porno movies from what I’ve seen…I mean what my friends have told me that not a lot of planning goes into making them. The plot’s always the same: barely there. At least Zack has a leg up on most skin flicks. Most, and just one leg.

Now one could argue that Zack might be a swipe at Smith’s culty fanbase. I’m going to. It could be an Andy Kaufman-esque practical joke all us Clerks adherents, Star Wars freaks and comic book geeks. I mean, note the hockey stick as boom mike on Zack and Miri’s makeshift stage. They got the guy who played Superman 2.0 as Miri’s “one that got away.” Super overt Star Wars references. You get the idea. It’s all part of Smith’s signature, and may be a deliberately skewed delivery. For those who might get it. At any rate it’s all irreverent. Take a deep breath, Jedi maniacs. The first; episode six. Not the new—

Ferget it. My underwear’s showing.

Zack is stupid, but not dumb. If my above hypothesis holds any eternally fresh milk, Smith may very well  be trying to pants his key audience, and in the process, himself. Maybe he was trying to shed an audience al a Dylan’s Self Portrait. Maybe Smith just wanted to f*ck around. Maybe I’m over-thinking things. I tend to do that. Do I?

Save it, you in the back.

But wait, let’s take a few to explore this hypothesis further. This’ll be for all those conspiracy theorists/MSTies/slavish Smith adherents. Kinda like with the Self Portrait analogy. Was Smith trying to shed an audience, pull some Kaurman-esque prank and/or evacuate his directorial bowels of all the crap that’s been loaded on him since Clerks? Hell, since Mallrats (still can’t figure out why folks like that turd in the punchbowl). As I wandered through Zack, and after some chewing afterwards, I somewhat rethunk my MO in taking apart Zack. Somewhat.

Years back I caught an episode of NPR’s On The Media. The subject was the Star Wars franchise (The Force Awakens was hurtling towards multiplexes as he spoke). The guest advised listeners it would be better to watch the first six eps not in chronological order. Something about watching the overarching storyline out of synch did a better job of arranging subplots in a fashion that made the character development more assured. Face it A New Hope‘s cast of dozens—heroes and villains alike—don’t have a very chewy (pardon the pun) backstory. This gets some correcting in Empire, but still the guy’s argument sounded solid. Can’t remember the order he recommended, so whatever.

That being said, if there is such a thing as a Smithy-verse, then Zack is the tipping point where all the man’s films up until that point get all ironical. He takes the audience on a round the world trip up his rectum. Which is probably much more amusing to Smith than his duped apostles. That and maybe there’s some cinematic incest with Jay and Silent Bob in almost every one of his f*cking movies. Connection? Coincidene? I’ll wager not.

So then, keeping all the above dreck in mind let me now properly dissect Zack. No duh Smith has his sticky fingerprints all over the place. He directed, wrote and—key here—edited Zack. Okay, ipso facto we had no Silent Bob, but we did have Jay cum (ha!) Lester. And his schlong. The plot (such as is) is relatively simple and straightforward enough to pad is with lots of crude humor and examining the human condition. And another competent, if miscast crew of slacker oddballs. All securely stationed in Smith’s wheelhouse. Heck, even the flick appears that the director always the same camerawork. Who was the cinematographer? Silent Bob?

Oh yeah.

Anywho, other noteworthy contributions from Smith. There’s a brittle sweetness to Zack. We fast learn that our sad sack protags are up sh*t’s creek, wallets as flotsam. Relatable, and please tell Verizon’s billing department to quit calling me. Their lives didn’t pan out as planned, as if they had a plan. Gen X ennui. Their jobs suck and as we know are not keeping the lights on. Maguffin? Desperate times call for desperate measures! Improbable leap to cutting a porn flick! Get rick quick scheme!

Kinda predictable, which what makes it accessible to all you berserkers in Smithville out there, as well as the general public…who wanted to learn how a porn was made. Hell, Zack co-stars Traci Lords, so we have an authority on the subject, thank Heaven.

I’m guessing this semi-standard plot was borne out of Smith’s need to make his own Self Portrait with everything, everything in overdrive here. So we can put the mediocre plot aside and be tricked by “The Mighty Quinn.”

You get what you think you’re paying for.

This is the second ensemble film Smith has cut, and it’s damned good ensemble, if underused. Dogma had the better cast, since in essence that was a road trip movie, which allowed the players to be introduced like pepperoni on a pizza and allowing subplots to bubble up smoothly. Zack is a straight line, permitting precious little—dare I say—growth with our characters. Felt like Smith was in some sorry of hurry to splatter the screen with all his demented ideas in the name of, “Now f*ck off, fanboys!”

So since Zack in an ensemble film with a threadbare plot, most of our concerns are directed through the cast. Here is the part where either Smith was bored or brilliant (I’m leaning towards the latter now, BTW). I’m thinking both; let’s take a few big/medium faces, throw ’em in the gooey existential Cuisinart and let it rip.

First and foremost on my mind watching this was how sorely Robinson was wasted here. Guy’s damn funny, like pre-Family Feud Steve Harvey. If Def Comedy Jam was still on the air, he’d be a header. He only gets dribs and drabs of snicker-worthy quips. Again, maybe that was Smith’s intent, and from here on I’m gonna cite the director’s probable joke on us as His Intent. It’ll save room in the Cloud. Thank me later.

His Intent was fleshed out to a degree by casting Rogen. Look, I know a lot of actors make their mark and their money by playing a type and sticking with it for the better part of their careers. Mostly comic actors, mostly. It worked (and still sorta works) for Adam Sandler, especially since his stabs at drama have bit the big one. Same with Jim Carrey, who broke the mold by portraying Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon (a weird comic playing a weird comic. Not much of a stretch). Even the late, great Richard Pryor’s best role was…Richard Pryor in JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. And that wasn’t him as Black Bart in Blazing Saddles. Get yer history straight, you philistines.

But does Rogen have any depth? I mean, I know he made an earnest attempt in 50/50 to not be a yob throughout the whole film. This might be the wrong movie to invite this question, but I gotta consider His Intent again. I always harbored the belief that Rogen improvs his lines. All his lines. If so, worked wonders in Superbad, his delicious awkwardness in Knocked Up and his non sequiturs in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. But not so much with Funny People, The Green Hornet and here. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a fan of the guy, and his schtick mostly works. Except here, where his motormouth gimmick comes across as just that: a gimmick. Rapid fire, impoved quips can only go so far for this guy, and Christ was he laying on thick. Who is Zack Brown, really? Do we care? Should we? Unsure on all fronts.

Let’s talk dialogue. It’s there. It’s loud and puerile, all that chatter about dingles and holes and mammaries that are perky. I read the title as did you. But this may be a first only only for me: there’s too much profanity. I grok Zack‘s reason for being surrounds the cast’s naughty bits and where they go. Salty talk goes with the territory; I ain’t deaf. But all of the blue language got numbing after a while, a blue blur of angst and innuendo. This was profanity overload, and it went from jarring to distracting to boring across three acts. Truth be told, I couldn’t pick up any line that wasn’t delivered with needless volume to forward the actors’ motivation, which was quite clear. Shakespeare this wasn’t. Shocker. Ah, well. F*ck off, fanboys, remember?

Banks is too pretty to be vulgar. With all its ribald humor, Zack pulled another miscast—maybe deliberately—by making Miri Zack’s foil. She does well with the lines she was given, albeit delivered in a anxious sense. Fish out of water. This isn’t the crone you’re looking for (admit it, that was clever). Truth be told I found Banks outfunnied Rogen, the vet. Sure, she’s done comedies before, mostly rom-coms but stuff made to amuse is made to amuse. Gotta give her props for the clown college try, despite the fact she looks like the terminal cheerleader captain. Still, she cussed with the best of ’em, God bless her.

In another film of this ilk (minus any maps of Hawaii on some silicone chick’s REDACTED), there might have been a little more romantic meat on the bones (heh). Even as Zack was over-the-top raunchy, some rules in the romantic comedy subgenre need to be obeyed to maintain cohesion. At its core, Zack is a rom-com. A dirty, demented rom-com directed by Kevin Smith, but a rom-com all the same. Again, if the following was part of His Intent, he did a good poor job of execution here. The latent sexual tension, for instance, coming to light is too abrupt (like everything else here. At least Zack is somewhat consistent). If there was a real message to this film then its a safe, universal one: sex changes everything, both figuratively and literally here in Smithworld. It’s not a bad note to wrap up on, but remember you gotta put that any everything else in Zack in the proper context. A little Vaseline over the lens focused at Red Bank helps.

So here are, near the end this week. After dismantling Zack what have we learned? Not much really. The whole caper was so cynically transparent, but did allow His Intent to run riot. If that was the objective. Mediocre sex comedy or brilliant practical joke? You decide. Still, likely both if you’d ask me. And I don’t care if you didn’t. I’ve got lasagne and you don’t. Neener neener.

In conclusion (for really real this time), Smith’s cachet is thumbing a nose and a middle finger to subtlety with Zack. Outright flushed down the sh*tter really. It was His Intent with Zack, calling out shots in the Foreign Man’s accent all the way (the Intent, not Latka). I’m almost sure of it. Betcha Zack frustrated a lot of Smith adherents out there, if not pissed them off. If so, good for the man. Sometimes you need a creative colonic now and again. Ask Dylan.

Snoochie boochies.

*klonk*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it at your own peril. Big Smith fan? You’ve been warned. Casual Smith fan? Go watch Clerks. Again.


Stray Observations…

  • Primus? Really? Well this is a Kevin Smith movie.
  • “Can’t you see we talkin’, White?”
  • Thanks there, Alanis.
  • Was casting Brandon “Superman” Routh another flagrant “touch” as him being Mr Right that got away? Geek chic meta.
  • Even at 40 years old, Lords still look like a teen here. A teen that shoplifted the local Hot Topic, but adolescent nonetheless. Creepy that.
  • Wait for the third chorus.
  • “I love the movies.”

Next Installment…

Oskar is autistic, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close to recovering those lost eight minutes. All he has to do is find the right lock.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 74: Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (2008)


 


The Players…

Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Kevin Kline, with Derek Luke, Adam Ferrara and Bill Clinton (by proxy).


The Story…

Young Maya is seriously curious about how her parents—currently hurtling into divorce—met. Naturally, she sweats her dad, Will, for the straight dope.

With a sigh and a need to get some sleep, Will recounts his romantic past (in a PG kinda way) with three different but still special women, Emily, April and Summer. All seemed to have a lasting impression on Maya’s beleaguered father, leaving her to a game of connect-the-dots as to guess which one is really Mom.

Some little birdy tells Maya that Match.com had precious little to do with her existence.


The Rant…

This may come as no surprise, but I’ve never been much for rom-coms. In fact, I should’ve dropped that decree back when establishing the Standard.

Nope. Never much cared for ham-fisted jokes about dealing with the opposite sex. Ditto the proto-softcore sexual dalliances of well-shorn, upwardly mobile, late-20s white people. The cute and winking social commentary. Jennifer Aniston. The whole wad.

But I won’t deny that I’ve found a few entertaining. Maybe even approaching good (shiver). Still ain’t made of stone here, and despite my typical frothing foment here, there’s always room for exceptions, be it at a vegan buffet or the occasional Taylor Swift single (I like “Shake It Off,” okay? Ten billion 17-year old mallrats can’t all be wrong).

Of course there are a lot of classic rom-coms out there. Often high water marks that every Kate Hudson vehicle aspire to be and of course fall flat because Goldie’s kid can’t act. Classics like the lovely (but bowdlerized Capote adaptation) Breakfast At Tiffany’s starring the winsome Audrey Hepburn and the dreamy George “Hannibal” Peppard. Reluctant lovers that find each other alone in the crowd that is early-60s NYC. There was the cynical Jerry Maguire featuring both bromance and wooing cutie-pie Renee Zellweger. Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie; unconventional, yes, but Hoffman was trying to get into Lange’s panties (that counts I say). Hepburn and Grant stepping on the tiger’s tail in Bringing Up Baby. And of course Annie Hall, the only rom-com to ever win Best Pic, although it didn’t have to. Woody Allen would agree.

Beyond my short list, there are indeed nice, non-drippy romantic comedies around. Few and far between, to be sure, since a great scorched earth swath of these beasties have been following a tried-and-true formula (read: one that sells the tix to gullible Americans) toward the end of time. Kinda like the Book Of Revelation, seeing St John was such a fan of pixie dream girls.

The aforementioned formula is as such, with or without Kate Hudson and especially with Ms Aniston. I base it on the Patton Oswalt bit about what all rom-coms are all about: our characters trying to f*ck. That’s the endgame, right? Crisis averted. Tab A, slot B, Holy mana chunky peanut butter. Sad but true, even though not many money shots get beyond a transaction with the teller. Need I remind you of the ticket taker and all right, got it.

But that’s true, even if actually see anything or not! Sure, we can get kisses and hugs at Chuck E Cheese any day of the month, but it’s the burnt pizza smell we want to a hang over us like a satisfying romantic caper should. Plots with fleshed-out, ribald characters. Basic—but not sodden—plots with room to breathe, letting in some quick “Hey there” now and again. An actual interest, if not concern, that our lovers find their way towards lasting commitment. The occasional side-boob shot. Whatever works in favor of the story.

I think a lot of rom-coms fall dead in their tracks not so much as to derivative…everything, but to trying to pander to our wizened expectations. Okay, you and I aren’t jaded like that. Okay, I mean you aren’t jaded like that. I mean…

*sigh*

*blogger drinks milk straight from the jug, passes it around*

Our jaded exceptions. Why do we watch such pap? Mostly like it might have to do with the wishes of our significant others, always with that box o’ Kleenex and pint of Haagen-Dasz at the ready (read: your girlfriend, regardless of gender). Maybe we just want a dumb chuckle attached to pretty people behaving pretty stupidly around the potential object(s) of their potential affection. Hell, maybe we just want to look at said pretty people. Unsure on all fronts here, but what can’t be denied is that no matter how hardened to reality we claim to be we all need a li’l giggle-and-snuggle now and again. Like I said: not made of stone. Neither are you. Admit it, at the time “you complete me” made you warm and the eyes watered, if only for a flash.

Let’s face it, folks, despite how diehard cynical we are, watching a decent rom-com takes our edge of for a short time so we can ransack the peasant village with a clear conscious tomorrow. We enjoy love, hope to find it someday, and may unfortunately face the wreck and ruin when your crush spurns you or you find the bed empty next morning. I guess we watch such drivel because, hey, romance is hard. We want easy answers. Matters resolved in 90 minutes. Ain’t that true of all movies? Patience pays, too. I took half of forever for Travis to whack Sport, and Taxi Driver—though well made—was a sh*t-tastic romantic comedy. I blame Cybil Shepard.

Anyway, I think the reason that most rom-coms are maligned is that they fail to transcend the tropes. We know what to expect. We still pray for a successful tab A slot B…again. We get clever and winking instead of earnest and “Hey there.” Yeah, they make good cheddar, maybe based on the Oswalt theory on the Aniston x-factor. Can’t say for sure, but if we’re talking about the bottom line, regardless of genre, the fluffy flick must have something to rise above the cheeze.

There’s often a pillowful of fluff associated with rom-coms. It’s almost the stock in trade. What made the above goodies, well, above is a good plot, sharp acting and a keen directorial eye, like with all good movies. Takes a sharp director and scenarist to throw the correct spanner in the sticky, sentimental works and maybe, maybe a smart rom-com will emerge. Maybe it happened here with Definitely, Maybe.

But maybe not. The thing does star Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds here…


Will Hayes (Reynolds) is a modestly successful ad exec. Not his dream job, but it pays the bills. Bills like alimony and child support.

Poor Will is going through a divorce, to his college sweetheart “Emily” (Banks) no less, and is learning how to make the most of his time (read: visitations) with his young daughter Maya (Breslin). Like most doomed divorcees he asks himself how did it end up like this? Not just his dissolving marriage and the ensuing limited Daddy time, but how the hell did he lose some integrity and make his way in the cold, hard world schilling cereal punch-up to afford his apartment? And the impending alimony? And the impending child forget that.

One day Will scoops Maya up from school on his designated day. The school is awash in chaos. Parents screaming, kids howling. Is it a fire? Lone gunman? Cafeteria ran out of chicken fingers (again)? Nope. Sex ed. In an elementary school? Will asks no one, “Aren’t they a little young?”

Maya finds her Dad amidst the crowd. “We need to talk,” comes her plaintive demand. Yep, too young.

With her stern quip, Maya sweats Will as to how Mom and him came around to make the good sense to have her. Select day or no, Maya refuses to bunk down that night unless Dad explains who Mom was. She means really was. How did they meet? When did they fall in love? Was she really the one? It ain’t the most conventional bedtime story, but Will acquiesces and fields Maya’s interrogation, if only to shut her up.

Well, kid, there was your mom. Then there was your mother


Like I said, in order for your usual, drippy rom-com to come to life there has to be a modest degree of smarts attached to the story. I say that and also a blurred focus on the whole Kate Hudson angle. Namely, pay no mind to the couple canoodling behind the curtain.

What’s funny (and I don’t mean ha-ha) about Maybe is that said canoodling is well wrapped in the curtain. Almost non-existant. Wait, that’s not quite accurate. The curtain action is virtually an afterthought. While watching Maybe I formed the impression that regardless of all the textures and trappings it wasn’t trying to be a rom-com. The whole deal with Dad recounting possible mom against another possible mom to Maya was more of a coming-of-age tale rather than the Oswalt context.

Maybe was dry. Both in humor and delivery. A good thing, couched against my strident dictum regarding what often goes wrong with the usual rom-com. Namely, cotton candy and no cone to hold. And without my trademark snark, a lot of things can and have gone wrong with this maligned sub-genre. I won’t mention Aniston again, at least in this paragraph. This one.

Maybe was indeed dry. Like sober. No-nonsense, or at least very little. Sure, there was a share of being fluffy, but at the end of the day Maybe had some low-key dire consequences, namely regarding Breslin’s prying open Reynold’s shell (and she is so precocious in the best way possible. Think Olive). That invites the whole raison d’être with Maybe: it pries. It’s intrusive. It’s what drives the plot. It’s what my kid might call “cringy.” I didn’t laugh much over Maybe. I did cringe a bit, but for the better. Blame the arid atmosphere almost revolting against the typical star-crossed love interest factor. And let’s face facts, Romeo and what’s-her-tits has become hackneyed. Claiming that, one could blame the Bard for Aniston’s movie career (and no, I will not stop beating on her like a rusty cymbal).

The whole air of Maybe was drenched in shame and schadenfreude. Almost solely laid at the feet of Reynolds. Kinda odd saying that considering Reynolds here is uncharacteristically likable. I know, I’m just as surprised as you. His signature smarm is at bay, and plays the innocent here for a change (maybe the first time). Most flicks like Maybe come at you from a female angle. Not here, yet the movie shrewdly takes cues from above (eg: the diary scene). Will is not the most proactive “ladies man” you’d see in your standard whatsit. For that very fact, Maybe comes across more like that aforementioned “coming of age” story rather than a polite tale of chasing tail. It’s in reverse, besides the flashback sequences. It might be a film about finding oneself, except that our protag works the exploration angle reflected off of three females. Four if you count Breslin. I do. It was different.

Which may be why I didn’t roll my eyes (much) watching it. Wasn’t as much a chore like I anticipated (oh, how one suffers for their art). Like all rom-coms, Maybe is totally character driven with wobbly undercurrents driving the principals. What makes Maybe unique is a matter of arrested development. Past Will is only a fleeting distant from Present Will. All the naivete of youth never got lost with “maturity” regarding our chump. As an “adult” Will is still chewing over what his chosen path has led to, and with the wayback machine in full force thanks to Maya’s prodding, he’s made to examine his unexamined life so far. “Exorcise” is probably a better term.

And Will’s past demons—I mean women—do a pretty good job of defining where Will went. Their characters ain’t nothing to write home (or anywhere) about. Banks, Fisher and Weisz fall into the traditional female rom-com archetypes. Banks was the college sweetheart, left behind. Fisher was the wild one, perched in the cosmo mess that Will was virginal to. Weisz the free spirit, all artsy-fartsy possessing an allure far from Minnesota. All temptresses to Will. What made these stereotypes worked—barely—was how Will responded to their potential offerings. Most male rom-com leads have a definite quarry, whom are not only the requisite object of their affection but the Maguffin that makes the plot extant, be it Hudson or Keaton. Not here with Maybe. There is a real uncertainty (like with Maya’s questioning) as to who Will eventually hooked up—and stayed—with. Uncertainty since Will is still the wide-eyed, post-grad Clinton booster now schilling kids’ cereal. Don’t let the clothes fool you. Maybe is a rather earthy rom-com. Like Reynolds as modest, maybe a first.

I could go into the ups and downs of our female cast, but I won’t. For two reasons. One, theirs were where the sickly sweet smell of all rom-coms dwell. Their characters, gamely played mind you, were simply gamely played. Two, despite their relatively unique personalities, this was Will’s tale all the way. The ladies were both merely bookends as well as reflections of Will’s growth as an individual. How you like them apples? An existential rom-com, populated with three weird sisters, all named Inez.

Sorry. Philosophy minor. Moving on.

And moving on is all about Will. The guy apparently can’t (or won’t) get his emotional sh*t together. Small wonder due to the impending divorce. Smaller wonder why Maya’s all over her history like Rosie O’Donnell on a Big Mac. This push-and-pull between emotional security and emotional need drives Maybe, and rather than the coven’s influences crowding the scene, it’s Will’s shrugging that moves our tale along. From Ryan Reynolds! Far cry from Green Lantern, eh? And I still liked that trifle. Sue me.

All right. It’s that time. Let’s talk tech. We can only wring our fists so long over the Patton theory. Cute chicks and their wicked plans only go so far (which can lead out to Toledo regardless of your zip code). I gotta give props to the notable props employed here, side-boob shots or no (less on the no part, one hopes).

Of course there were a few tips and tricks I nabbed that made the film a little smarter that your average Aniston—

*squished beer cans go clang*

Sorry. That hurt. You’re welcome. Where’s the potato chips?

I saw some keen camera work here. Namely, precious few close-ups. Maybe is an open film, probably reflecting the “room for interpretation” theme of the story. That and its opposite, wide frames and open space, doubtless a reflection of Will’s chosen, uncertain and virtually never-ending stroll through life, love and leaving. I’ve often felt in my travels that technique—such as it may be—in most rom-coms feature a lot of face time dappled with dewey eyes and wide open expanses. Again, not here with Maybe. Even the most open shots are tight, almost claustrophobic. This is a character study, right? Will is always under the lens; why not make him solid front and center? It’s almost relentless, which also adds to the sense that Maybe ain’t yer average romantic comedy. I began to suspect that over the relentless 2 hours. Might not’ve been a bad thing. Trying to absorb that.

Also, there’s a lot of passive 90’s pop culture noted in Maybe. Might’ve been nostalgia speaking to me; I remember all the Clinton/grunge/nascent World Wide Web stirrings back then stabbing my squishy adolescent skull. Like a sharp orchestra with well-waxed bows, such tones hit the ears to the properly receptive. I know this was all a setup to have a destination for Maya’s interrogating Daddy Will about when and where, but we didn’t get swamped with the likes of touchstones MTV Unplugged, Pepsi Crystal and/or affordable Discmans. Instead we passed through Will’s doors, snapped at but never snagging our coats. There’s a lot to say for subtlety so beneath that one barely remembers to zip up before bounding reluctantly out into the rain. Did I leave something behind? Maybe. Must’ve been Maya’s questions. Bless her.

There was a lot of purposeful cheekiness here, too. Granted not really a technical aspect of a movie, but for this kind of movie—again, this genre—sour cutesy can work wonders, especially here. A lot of knowing, narrow winking is the expected death knell of any credibility a rom-com tries to attain, which ain’t much (I dislike the genre, all right? Quit reading then). Maybe‘s cheekiness is a disguise for being self-effacing. There is an uncertainty about the “right woman” threading through the film. A lot of “okay, now what?” It’s the “hey there” factor here. Play cute, implode later. Shakespeare played that card a lot, and it worked so well “Taming Of The Shrew” is still de riguer in every high school English class. Trust me, I know. I used to be a respectable member of society and not reeking of salami, beer and beer. Them errant cans be my underlings now. Tremble before me.

*belch*

Wrapping this whole gob up, I’m still not a rom-com fan. As a whole—let’s call it—they’re usually too damned schmaltzy. Maybe managed to avoid this. Don’t misunderstand me: this stuff is decidedly not my thing. But I kinda liked it. Kinda. Maybe still had the hallmarks federally mandated to address. Pretty white people in amour (okay, to be fair we also had a pretty black guy, but he was unattached). Struggles regarding communication and self-doubt. Running a little too long (not feeling, running. We were pushing 2 hours here). The whole deal. However Maybe quietly strained against the boilerplate. A fan of the genre, I still ain’t, seeing for a clever director/scenarist trying hard to steer clear of said genre’s trappings and generate a flick I’ll watch, three stars and a bouquet.

Even though I never plan to watch Deadpool woo Wyldstyle ever again. I’m a guy.

Place your bets?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. I’m just as surprised as you might, might be. Blame or thank Maybe‘s not obvious unconventional execution. I blame Ryan Reynolds as not smelling of Van Wilder. I should thank just being a guy here with some…er, very little patience. That and I think Isla Fisher’s hot. As well as Breslin. Today! Breslin today! Jeez.


Stray Observations…

  • “And then what happened?”
  • Early 90s = Arrested Development. ‘Nuff said.
  • “Probably…not.”
  • I love the opening montage (the Sly song goes a long way, too).
  • Is Rachel pretty? My vote’s not in yet.
  • “You should get on your horse.”
  • Ever play the game/see the movie Clue? Wanna wager Brooks did?
  • “I make a living.” Couldn’t resist either.
  • Strangest pop culture study of Bill Clinton I’ve ever seen.
  • “You.”

Next Installment…

It appears that Viggo Mortenson has A History Of Violence he was ignorant about. “Luckily” he found the best, worst refresher course. Coffee anyone?