On the surface Kevin Smith has crafted a clever concept a ragtag group attempts to make a porno film in order to get some quick cash. The underlying story is the platonic relationship between roommates Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) whose friendship goes to a whole new level once they find themselves out of cash and decide to cast themselves in their own triple XXX film. After meeting a gay adult film actor at a party Zack comes up with the get-rich quick idea to make a porn movie enlisting Miri’s help and convincing her that it will not affect their friendship. They set about casting the rest of the film with a disparate group of participants including the very self confident sex maniac Lester (Jason Mewes) superstud Barry (Ricky Mabe) gorgeous blonde bombshell Stacey (adult film icon Katie Morgan) and daring kinky Bubbles (legendary Traci Lords). What seemed like a simple proposition turns complicated when Zack and Miri in the heat of simulated lovemaking and in front of the whole crew discover they may be more than just friends. Even considering his great work in Knocked Up Zack is Rogen’s most accomplished character to date a lovable loser who uses last-ditch initiative to turn his life around and in the process discovers more than he ever bargained for. Chemistry is a tricky thing but Rogen certainly has it in spades with co-star Banks who takes what could have been a broadly sketched role and turns Miri into a three-dimensional woman who doesn’t even realize her true soul mate may be right under her nose --literally. You root for these two all the way. The wonderful supporting cast is unique to say the least including adult film star Katie Morgan making her mainstream debut as the ditzy Stacey. After some 200 “real” XXX films she graduates to the big leagues in style and shows she may have a future outside of her niche. Lords who made that leap some time ago niftily sends up her own former image and shows fine comic chops and a willingness to dress deliciously inappropriately. As for the guys Mabe is very funny but Jason Mewes (Jay of Jay and Silent Bob) lets loose with a hilarious and totally uninhibited portrayal of a sex addicted tattooed dude willing and able to do anything on camera. Also nearly stealing the show is The Office’s Craig Robinson a married crew member who is excited to help out buddy Zack because he wants to see “titties.” And in extended cameos Justin Long as a gay porn star and Superman Brandon Routh have a great time sending up their straight movie images playing bickering boyfriends. Kevin Smith has always gone for the jugular challenging the ratings boards and pushing the envelope in his films ever since the classic “dirty movie” Clerks made him famous. But not since his early films such as Chasing Amy has he showed such style and maturity as a filmmaker as he does in Zack and Miri his most outrageously hilarious and accomplished movie to date. Yes he does continue going for shock value (there’s a laugh-out-loud moment involving a certain bodily function natch) but his story is grounded in reality recognizably human and engaging. He milks this genius comic premise for all its worth but gives it an extra dimension that makes it different unexpected and finally memorable. Mostly though it’s just plain fun.
Sometimes the simplest of crimes are the ones that go the most awry—a fact Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) find out the hard way. You see they both have money problems: Andy is an overextended payroll exec who has been embezzling from his company while Hank is a flighty ne’er-do-well who can’t pay child support. When Andy hatches a larcenous scheme to rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target Hank is in—until he finds out the store owners are Andy and Hank’s actual mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). “How can we do that?” Hank asks his cold-hearted brother but Andy assures Hank it’s a piece of cake and that no one will get hurt. Famous last words. Hank’s fears are realized when the job goes horribly wrong and tragedy reaches unprecedented heights. A top-notch cast like this only makes things better. Hoffman in particular gives yet another tour-de-force performance as the troubled Andy a man wounded by his father’s hard-headedness and lack of affection throughout the years. Hoffman alternates between calculating coldness and heart-wrenching desperation—all while keeping his outwardly appearance impeccable. Hawke’s Hank on the other hand is just a mess through and through a “puppy dog ” as so described by Andy who wears his heart on his sleeve and is his father’s favorite. Although Hawke whines and grates his way through the performance that is what the part requires and he is quite effective at it. Finney as the brothers’ old man is also conflicted devastated by the tragedy yet determined to get to the bottom of it--and when he realizes it’s his sons Finney plays the moment perfectly. Also good is Marisa Tomei as Andy’s stressed wife; she plays her like a caged bird looking for a way out. When things keep getting worse you cringe in anticipation of each character’s next move. Sidney Lumet is certainly an expert in train-wreck crime dramas having served up such classics as Dog Day Afternoon Serpico and Prince of the City as well as other stellar efforts such as 12 Angry Men Network and The Verdict. He’s also directed 17 different actors in their Oscar-winning performances--and still the man himself has yet to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Funny how it always works out that way. Over the last few years Lumet has stumbled a bit (2006’s Find Me Guilty didn’t help matters) but you shouldn’t underestimate his talent when he can really sink his teeth into something. Before the Devil is right up his alley and he spins it with all the experience and professionalism he has at his fingertips. Its nonstop pace is enhanced by some clever editing in which time jumps back and forth over the span of a week. And of course Lumet once again guides his actors into stellar performances. You get this dysfunctional family immediately without a word spoken. The director is surely looking at his sixth Oscar nomination and if he wins the Big One for what in essence is his body of work at least we can say he won for something truly worthy.