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.


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.


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. 2, Installment 32: Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl” (2004)


The Players…

Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, George Carlin and Raquel Castro, with Stephen Root, Mike Starr, Jason Biggs and Jennifer Lopez (ugh).

The Story…

After affluent music publicist Ollie Trinke loses his wife, his job, his home, his self-respect and his station in life, reality slaps him upside his yuppie head. However, amidst the debris, he gains a daughter, and she turns out to be the biggest, most important responsibility he’s ever had to own up to. But he learns he can’t do it alone. Sometimes even the tireless of single dads needs a shoulder to lean on. And that is exactly why he frequents the local video rental.

The Rant…

I’m gonna blog out again. Fair warning.

We’ve all had them. Menial jobs. The work that doesn’t really pay the rent, but keeps us wealthy in Ramen. What little revenue we gain from such posts often means the difference between having a night out or reliable Internet service. We’ve all had them. And if you haven’t, well, bully for you. You want whipped cream on that?

Back in college (here we go again), I worked part-time at the local coffee house. It was a mom-and-pop operation. In truth is it was a failed-relationship-steeped-in-recovered-heroin-addiction-but-still-maintaining-the-business-operation-because-no-matter-what-the-state-says-methadone-is-not-cheap-and-besides-the-deed-was-in-our-name operation. It was a nice place. I was a barista. Not a guy who wore a visor and apron emblazoned with the parent/corporate logo and pressed a lot of pre-programmed buttons. An honest-to-God, grungy, cliquey coffee house often manned by your fave know-it-all. I was trained in all the nuances of an expensive, imported espresso press/steamer—the kind of gear equivalent in value to a small car—with more knobs than a three-storey cathouse. I brewed coffee, made pastries, learned how the steamer worked so as both to not burn the milk as well as make it properly froth and the difference between a high-gluten yield and non-gluten one 20 years before it became a diet fad. The works. The place was a dingy, subterranean, literally a basement property beneath the local bodega that served real coffee, real espresso drinks, pastry and bread made on premises. The joint offered solace to beleaguered students and teachers alike. A thick haze of cigarette smoke you could cut with only the klatches the local profs held with their afterhours beyond lectures hung over the place. It was the closest thing I would ever experience to Boehme Greenwich Village a fool could in Central New York.

Not like the café gig was a going-somewhere career.

It was indeed a menial job, but it had its perks, so to speak. Free coffee, a quiet place to study, cool music (most of which courtesy of yours truly’s mixtapes), the occasional open mike act and nary an apron in sight. I think I spent the better part of my sophomore to senior evenings there. I would whip up off-kilter drinks (the lychee and cocoa latte failed to go over well), promote and solicit the local bagel baker, take the occasional date there (they always seemed to be impressed when I had to dip away from our table to service a customer) and also push our homemade scones. Best in town, especially since nowhere else in the town actually offered scones.

It was a nice job, but indeed menial. Paid peanuts. For instance, I once had to dip into the joint’s kitty for $20 just to score some beer. No worries, I paid it back in tips. But then again my folks had to cough up the monthly $35 data fee for the then burgeoning home Internet service (it was the 90’s). Whatever coin I pocketed was usually spent on CDs, books, phone bills and booze, three of the four usually employed to impress a date. Sometimes it even worked.

Nevertheless, what little the gig offered in the way of cash more than made up for some life lessons offered. Some of my fave profs held study groups there (remind me to tell you all about Prof. Thomas sometime. It’s a good story). There were the faux Boehme who would angst out and do fruitless punk sh*t there, like a lot of screaming about socialism, crushing coffee mugs against the already pitted wall and basically recreating whatever Ian MacKaye sang about that year. There was also a curious and engaging contingent of exchange students from Tokyo who would only commune with the sole white guy within a thousands clicks of the Finger Lakes who could speak Kanji, and I later learned they were merely talking about their escapades at the mall. And their classes. You gotta take priority when you can.

Anyway, it was there at the café that I met the Blofeld to my James Bond. His name was Mark, three years older than me, grad student studying law. Tax law. I once asked him, “Why tax law?” I was a fan of TV crime dramas and was totally ignorant of due process outside of Jerry Orbach’s snarky asides. “Why not criminal law?” I asked.

He told me. There was always an opportunity to make new law with taxes. The laws changed almost annually. Criminal law was different. So many precedents had already been set, so the opportunity to make “new” criminal law was almost nil. Mark didn’t necessarily have aspirations to be the next Bruce Spizer or anything; he just had an endless desire to learn new things and share acquired knowledge with anyone who walked into view, whether they wanted it or not. Enter young me.

Mark was a wiseass, armchair philosopher and pop culture sponge. We often worked together on the night shift at the café. We would goof around, wax political about social mores and their failures, talk movies and put on shows for our guests. Example? First there was Punctuation Night. A la The Electric Company, we’d draw exaggerated, cartoony punctuation on poster board and whenever we served a guest, we’d hold up the cards concluding each sentence or question with a card screaming “.” or “?” respectively. It played out something like this:

“Hi (exclamation point card)”

“Can I help you (question mark)”

“Would you like some coffee (comma) or maybe a muffin…”

You get it. It was juvenile. Such antics reminded Mark of and prompted him to tell me about the movie Clerks. He was endlessly quoting from it, and after I finally saw it, I followed suit. Mark and I were Randal and Dante, and we held those images sacred at work, even if the job wasn’t nearly as crushing as working at the Quick Stop. Practical jokes, snide comments to the people we deemed as not hip, endlessly arguing the merits of this scholar versus whatever pop culture issue we were chewing on that week was the routine.

So yeah, Mark introduced me to Kevin Smith’s movies. I watched Clerks to death; it was a calling card  to being 20-something and going nowhere in the 90s. I liked Smith’s dry humor and indie rock aesthetic. His other films like Chasing Amy and Dogma toed the line between heady and comic, with most of his work questioning the great values—or lack thereof—in these our United States. Like my peers, we probably looked too deeply into Smith’s oeuvre, especially his clunky Mallrats. His “dirty realism” is appealing, tempered with crude references to drug abuse, kinky sex and comic books.

All of which is lacking in Jersey Girl…

Ollie Trinke (Affleck) was once on the up and up. A cutthroat New York publicist for the music biz, shouting from the rooftops extolling the value of Madonna and the Fresh Prince (this was in the early 90’s) and living a near-rock star existence himself. Big office, big car, big money and dozens of assistants at his beck and call.

Once. It all began to fall apart after he got married.

Ollie and Gertie (J. Lo) are destined to be the next big power couple, riding the media wave into the 21st Century. It’s only natural they want to start a family, and when Gertie finds herself pregnant, Ollie is ecstatic. Things are really happening.

But such things are not to be. Gertie dies during the delivery. Ollie is left a single dad, bleak and trying to cope with a shattered family while maintaining his high stress job. It doesn’t work, and when Ollie openly trashes his new client at a press conference, well…bye-bye career.

Ollie leaves Manhattan in shame only to decamp in his hometown of Highlands, NJ with his infant daughter in tow. He moves back into his childhood home, sharing the world of parenting and beer with his gruff, blue-collar Pop (Carlin). Now Ollie occupies his time with trying to get back into the business, ignoring baby Gertie, and tasking Pop with performing the necessary fatherly duties. Ollie assures Pop this situation is only temporary until he finds a new job.

Seven years later:

Ollie’s still living in Jersey, doing menial work driving a street sweeper and doing his best to give grammar school Gertie (Castro) a normal, stable life. But Ollie misses her mom, misses the security his marriage once offered him. Misses other people. It’s only until a random stop at the local video store for some porn where he meets the kindly Maya (Tyler). She seems to know a few things about relationships, as well as taking a shine to Ollie’s awkward single dad status. She thinks she can help Ollie out of his funk, but it’s gonna be under some peculiar conditions…

I wanted to like Jersey Girl. I really did.

Jersey Girl was Kevin Smith’s first straightforward, “mature” film. A simple story, said to reflect the director’s own newfound status as married man and a dad. Reflective or no, Jersey Girl is almost too straightforward. The movie starts out kinda textbook, and just moves from chapter to chapter with nary a whit of elation or pathos to drive any conflict. It’s all connect-the-dots, and the movie fails to radiate any warmth that Smith desperately wanted to convey to his fans. The edge Smith honed in his other films is whittled down to a nub here, with none of the snarky spark that made Clerks and Dogma such spicy fun. There’s no subtlety of storytelling here, almost as if Smith wanted to make damn sure the audience understood the gravity of his new role. It’s never a good idea to pander to the audience, and downright knuckleheaded to think the masses won’t “get it” without cue cards. Punctuation or no.

The faults with Jersey Girl are small, but many. They add up. Kind of like a small cut on your finger that goes untreated and eventually gets infected: it all comes to a head after awhile. Too bad the story doesn’t come to a head.

The most glaring fault with Girl is the acting. It’s been debated back and forth with folks wiser than me that if Affleck and Lopez can actually act. After watching Girl, the vote’s still out. Affleck is as flat as could be. His Ollie is transparent and wooden. He’s just not likeable, and you can’t get behind a lead you don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of anti-heroes out there you can root for, but they usually have a strong personality, startling presence and are well-written. And also after a promising start with Out of Sight (almost two decades ago), J. Lo’s acting résumé has followed the law of diminishing returns. Granted she’s only offered a few scenes in Girl (amid the torrid real-life love affair with Affleck, which the celeb press could simply not get enough of), which she fails to make a case to being in front of a camera rather than a microphone, and even that is a case left by the bench. She’s dull, he’s dull. End of story.

Only it’s not. There are two distinct highlights of the movie regarding acting. George Carlin as Pop is a distilled version of the comic Noo Yawk persona that was his stock-in-trade for decades. His whole performance in the movie is merely a drawn out take of his “I Used to Be Irish Catholic” bit from his 1972 album Class Clown. Ever grumpy, sardonic and winsome, Carlin gives some life, albeit one-note character to the film. You can take an easy shine to his Pop, as he channels a thousand world-weary working class fathers into a simple 90-minute film. I wished he were used more wisely in Girl, if only as a tent pole. Carlin as cuddly? It oddly works. Also, the final scene in the bar? Carlin’s best role ever.

Castro brings out the limited best in Affleck. Sure, she may be the token moppet serviced as the axis the whole film revolves around, but the rapport between her Gertie and Affleck’s Ollie is simply great. It’s the best acting in the film. It’s almost like a film within the film. Everything else is bumping up against the set. Get Castro and Affleck together, and hey, there might be a story there. Too bad it’s so fleeting.

On a similar hand, I like the unsure nature of the Ollie/Maya potential. Here is where Smith’s mercurial taste of failing relationships takes a pit stop. With Ollie and Maya, there is this unsaid tension. It’s funny to say this since everything else in Girl plays out so literally. The abrupt way they come together, the sorting out of Ollie’s issues, Maya’s interactions with Gertie, all of these aspects are not examined in a way that could be considered “open.” Perhaps this was due to poor chemistry between Tyler and Affleck, but I don’t think so. There was something there that wasn’t fully fleshed out, and left a feeling of insecurity; there was some possible tension which the story sorely needed. Again, maybe I’m looking for something that just wasn’t there. There is a sense of something missing pervading all of Girl’s script.

I think that one of the reasons Girl is so linear was to serve as training wheels for Smith’s usual audience. Gone are the pop culture riffs, innuendo, edgy commentary and Jay and Silent Bob. Instead its all been replaced with warm and fuzzy. This might have thrown the core stoner crowd for a loop. There would be confusion, rioting in the aisles. Anarchy! And why isn’t this movie taking place in Red Bank?!? At least Jason Lee and Matt Damon get a cameo that might sate the crazed audience, rejecting this new, “family friendly” Smith. He wants to stretch himself and be all post-ironic making a film that reflects an open door policy on the foibles of life, all sunny and cute.

And Girl has a horrible case of the cutes. Right, sure. It’s cute, but that can only go so far. The treacle Smith was trying to spin here might have been from a muse that spouted blindly from his new “grown-up” status, so much so that his camera lens got bleary from too much talcum powder. There’s this pervasive sweetness at work here, but it gets cloying. Granted it does work; it’s the glue holding this derivative narrative together. But again, does he have to be so f*cking literal in delivery?

Thanks to Mark, I learned a belated lesson about how to appreciate Smith’s movies. And thanks to my reverence, I always eventually learned to appreciate the sum of their parts. Smith’s films are jagged, irreverent and ultimately rewarding being steeped in scatological humor, the human condition, and a healthy dose of dick jokes. Jersey Girl had none of that. Smith was trying to straighten his tie directing this one, and it fooled nobody. With such a straight line from beginning to finish, little was remaining for his signature left field sense of hockey helmet humor. It was like a Spielberg flick sans gaping eyes.

Jersey Girl is too much forced drama, set to a cool soundtrack. It’s an unfortunate color-by-numbers story, and we can all see it coming. Where’s Jay and Silent Bob when you need ‘em?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. It’s too connect-the-dots to allow any real feeling of drama or humor, despite Smith’s best intentions. Flat, flat, flat. Snooch to the nooch.

Stray Observations…

  • “What are your intentions…to my daughter?”
  • Video store, eh? Kevin Smith meta?
  • “That’s a lot.”
  • Affleck is good with kids. There. I said it.
  • “You gettin’ a dog?” Funniest line in the whole damn movie.
  • This was the first View Askew production to not feature Jay and Silent Bob. Maybe if they were included, some much-needed levity could’ve happened. Right, Lunchbox?
  • “What are your intentions…with my father?”
  • Joe bless George Carlin.

Next Installment…

Can Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson survive the perils of The Island? Not the island itself, per se. Y’know, just surviving a Michael Bay movie.