Kevin Smith has gained a lot of weight. A lot of weight.
I'm not saying this for the sake of gossip, as Smith himself was the first to acknowledge all this when we got on stage after an admittedly stellar introduction (complete with the THUNDER COPS trailer on the big screen at Austin's huge Paramount Theater) at this year's opening night of Fantastic Fest. Having not seen Smith enter the building, I really was more than a little stunned to see just how much he's put on - he's got to be tipping the scales at close to, or over, 300 pounds. Smith quickly addressed the matter by explaining that he's started to smoke pot again on a regular basis, and with that has come the munchies and the weight gain that goes with that. The opening night crowd laughed all this off, but as I sat there watching ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO, I couldn't help but equate Smith's current physical state with what ended up on screen. Bigger than it needs to be (it's 102 minutes but feels longer) and overly talky (not much of a surprise where Smith is concerned), ZACK & MIRI, while certainly amusing at many points and filled with some good laughs, is also yet another trip down the same unambitious road that Smith has been coasting on all decade long. The fans will be pleased, but those of us who saw him as the voice of the SLACKER generation will have to resign themselves to the fact that he has become nothing more than a creative slacker as the years have gone by.
In a sense, the Kevin Smith who made CLERKS is still on display throughout ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO; CLERKS took a "write what you know" approach, giving audiences an idea of the working-class world that Smith came from (0ne not too removed from my own - he's from Red Bank, NJ, about an hour south of where I'm from) and ZACK & MIRI seeks to revisit that a little bit, moving the action to that most working-class of American cities, Pittsburgh (a few Romero jokes and a Romero regular cameo are nice touches). Its leads are two late-twenties longtime friends who find themselves struggling to make ends meet; after attending their 10 year high school reunion, they also realize that they have made nothing with their lives, and once the power and water are turned off, desperation leads to inspiration as the saying goes, and so henceforth the title. With this, the film goes into several predictable places - their porno starts as a STAR WARS spoof and then becomes a workplace porn; Zack and Miri confront their feelings for each other after their sex scene; Zack finds himself motivated to accomplish something for the first time in his adult life, ect. So basically, it's Smith telling the story of CLERKS but with tits, and once again it feels like he's refusing to challenge himself. He mined the unrequited love element much better in CHASING AMY and CLERKS remains one of the great workplace comedies, while this is not, and all of the dick and sex jokes (with some scatological humor being an unwelcome addition) are pretty much what you would expect. When Smith made CHASING AMY, and especially DOGMA, which is still his best work, you felt that he was growing artistically and starting to talk about what he thought about rather than what he was feeling. But ever since then he hasn't tried to do anything other than what would make audiences laugh. As the old PIECES tag line goes, ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PRONO is exactly what you think it is, and that's very disappointing.
With all of that out of the way, I do want to say that ZACK & MIRI isn't a complete washout, because it's probably Smith most polished film, technically, and there are certainly some good laughs. The performers are all fine, and Smith very nicely allows everyone in the cast an opportunity to prove themselves. It's nice to see Smith regular Jason Mewes clean, sober and not doing his old "Jay" act; Craig Robinson makes an excellent second-banana to Seth Rogen and gets some of the film's best lines, while Traci Lords is solid as a dominatrix and current porn star (and all-around sweetie) Katie Morgan proves that, yeah, she actually has some talent and could make it in the world of straight movies if she gets a shot. Rogen is good (likewise does not seem to be stretching himself too far), while Banks proves herself once again as an excellent comedienne who deserves more opportunities like this. It's in part because of the cast that you wish the film was better than it is because you know Smith has it in him to do superior work, but he's not applying himself, he's just sitting there getting stoned. Sure, ZACK & MIRI will probably go on to be Smith's biggest hit to date (he seems to top out at around the $30 million mark) and audiences probably won't be too disappointed, but for me, seeing Smith become so big, followed by seeing ZACK & MIRI, I could help but feel this was a Twinkie of a movie: Kinda tasty, but filled with nothing bu empty calories that are only going to fatten you up, not enrich you.