Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Movies I Missed (On Purpose)

In which we release mini-reviews of two fairly recent comedy films that managed to pass me by until now.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Year: 2008
Director: Kevin Smith
Cast: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In order to make enough money to pay their rent, two slacker friends decide to produce and star in a porn film, but how will this affect their relationship?

Pretty much any movie starring Seth Rogen between 2007 and 2010 was created explicitly to cater to the greasy, speckly daydreamers of the world who wanted to believe the busty blonde down the hall would find the lovable oaf buried deep beneath the Cheeto dust-crusted exterior. It’s the kind of nerd-fulfillment fantasy Judd Apatow has been trafficking in since day one, and the only person I can think of who is more suited to bring that icky feeling to life is Kevin Smith. …Enter Kevin Smith.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is about Elizabeth Banks falling for Seth Rogen and while both are admirable performers, the spark isn’t even there on paper. I’m not even talking about their disparate physical attractiveness. Zack could be played by Hugh Grant and Miri’s interest in him would still be deeply questionable. It’s all in the writing, which is skeevy and sweaty in a deeply disconcerting manner despite the supposed sex positivity of the script. 

The film crows over the female form like a cackling magpie, exempting men altogether from its bone-chilling leer. This is a movie strewn with completely naked women that treats its one full frontal male scene like it’s something shocking and disgusting. Male perspectives in sex films are just the worst, aren’t they? Despite Banks’ attempt at creating a shaded, multi-dimensional human being, Miri is merely a prize to be won: a fun fair sack of flesh, blood, and mammary glands. 

And Zack and Miri treats its minor characters even worse, if you can believe it. Craig Robinson is forced to contort into every stereotype in the book, and some that have been scribbled in the margins (whipped sitcom husband, wise best friend, irrationally angry black man), and the rest of the porno cast are given no introduction, with personalities ranging from one-note (Jason Mewes’ clueless sex fiend) to topless window dressing to “no seriously, who are you?” Then they’re sent floundering through a fundamentally broken story with a distended first act that swallows half the run time, a bungled time jump that kills the momentum at a climatic juncture, and a central relationship that vomits out manufactured filler drama in an unending stream. There are such deep cracks in the narrative here that James Cameron wants to make a documentary exploring them.

Is it funny? I suppose. Justin Long has an excellent extended cameo as a gravel-throated gay porn star, and there are jokes throughout that work when they’re not being extravagantly racist, sickeningly misogynistic, or they completely miscalculate the film’s capacity for scatological humor. Zack and Miri aims to shock, and it succeeds, but hardly in the way it intends to. Its sex is too tame to be titillating, and it can’t sustain such a deeply disjointed story on a pocketful of dick jokes. I say Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a tremendously lazy film, and the Windows Movie Maker credits that grace its front and back end seem to agree with me. I’d love to see this material handled by another director, but unfortunately Zack and Miri – and especially Kevin Smith – just don’t turn it on.

Rating: 4/10

Year: 2015
Director: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo 
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A now grown-up Rusty Griswold decides to take his family on a road trip to Wally World in an attempt to smooth over their problems.

Now, here’s a movie I never thought I’d see, let alone like. A belated straggler from the 2000’s remake boom (seriously, other than Ghostbusters, who’s making remakes anymore? Remakes are so passé, sequels are what’s In this season), updating material that nobody has given a passing thought to in over a decade, Vacation seemed like the most obnoxious kind of family comedy. And to be honest, it doesn’t really try to be anything different. All the scatological gags, picked-clean sexual references, and oddly violent slapstick that you might expect are front and center, but Vacation prevails in spite of that.

I blame the cast. Ed Helms has always been a reliable comic presence, even if he doesn’t stand out in a sea of funny 40-something white guys. And he’s surrounded by a bevy of delightful professionals, first and foremost Christina Applegate. I’ve never paid much attention to Applegate beyond her cameo appearance on Friends, but she’s utterly brilliant here, wrapping up the classic Apatowian pent-up manboy archetype within the guise of a tired suburban mom. And then we have, packed in like sardines, Leslie Mann, Charlie Day, Caitlin Olsen, Michael Peña, Keegan-Michael Key, and f**king Chris Hemsworth, who Ghostbusters has taught us is a bona fide force of nature.

This cast elevates the mostly generic material, making it funny enough that when the script hits its patches of actual genius, they don’t seem out of place. The family car is a bubbling fount of hilarity with its endless absurdities and M.C. Escher-esque design, the young brothers are a wonderfully mismatched pairing, and there is a spot of psychosexual terror that cold-cocks your funny bone. It’s not highbrow, to be certain, but there are actual laughs here - laughs that Vacation comes by honestly, and that is a remarkable achievement.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 953

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