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.
Tommy Santoro’s (James Marsden) disillusionment with his own family--Dad was a mob enforcer who was shot down in front of the house--leads him to join the Marines but when the Gulf War ends with Saddam still in power Tommy flips and ends up in the brig. An FBI agent (Brian Dennehy) offers him his only way out of a multi-year sentence: Return to the Philly neighborhood he grew up in and inform on his mobbed-up cousin Joey (Giovanni Ribisi). Tommy is dismayed to find that his young brother Vincent (Brad Renfro) is also now in the life. Tommy ends up romancing Brandy (Piper Perabo) a girl he grew up with now widowed and working at Joey’s nightclub. Finally rid of Cyclops’ signature shades it’s nice to see more of X-Men’s Marsden than killer cheekbones and pursed lips including some finely honed dramatic chops. Renfro’s character is supposed to be on the slow side it seems although it’s not quite clear why that is. Ribisi as the hair-trigger tempered Joey doesn’t quite have the gravitas or necessary psychosis to intimidate. In fact all of the cast seem a bit on the young side which lends an unwelcome air of kids-playing-dress-up to the proceedings. With dark hair and a perpetually guarded expression Perabo is nearly unrecognizable as that same blonde who shook her thing on top of the bar in Coyote Ugly--although her casting does invite an unintentional snigger or two when she informs a horny patron that “the bartenders don’t dance.” Cameos by Dennis Hopper (as Tommy’s dad) Val Kilmer (as a drunk grieving his Marine son) and Tommy Lee (as “Jimmy Tats ” an overeager bouncer) are more distracting than meaningful. Writer/director Bobby Moresco (one half of the Crash writing team) proves he’s no Scorsese. The film boasts some striking cinematography and moody lighting and sparks to life whenever things turn violent. But as is often the case in mob dramas connections between characters aren’t clear. Character interaction remains on the murky side as well. Tommy chews Joey out for allowing brother Vincent to get involved in his mob dealings but no one questions Tommy’s reentry into the life. While we feel for Tommy’s dilemma Moresco fails to build sympathy or interest for other characters so by the time the final showdown occurs you won’t much care who lives and who dies.