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Film Reviews: Exiles on Main St. in ‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’ and ‘What Just Happened?’


 

Having just read ‘Why I Blog‘, Andrew Sullivan’s nicely crafted piece in The Atlantic—explaining how blogging must be uncrafted and reckless because it’s typing as live performance, the extreme sport of written journalism—I will try to remind myself not to craft my online reviews as if the fate of our culture depended on it, and try to stream some stream ‘o consciousness criticism. At least for today. Because I’m in a hurry. And as I understand it, online that’s a good thing.

When I see films at festivals, sometimes I have to see them again to refresh my memory or calibrate my opinion, while trying to remain true to first impressions, which are valuable. I saw Zack and Miri Make a Porno at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and What Just Happened? at the Cannes Film Festival in May. They’re both satirical comedies about filmmaking of a sort, but from opposite corners of the industry. Robert De Niro and Seth Rogen would appear to have much in common, but both play amiable losers trying to make movies while their lives are in a shambles. And my feelings about both films fall into that netherworld of opinion dreaded by critics and readers alike: indifference.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a Kevin Smith comedy starring lovely Elizabeth Banks and cuddly Canadian stoner dude Seth Rogen, is quite forgettable. I know this because, even though I saw it barely two months ago, it has gone right out of my head. I suppose I should make an effort to see it again, so that I could figure out exactly why it was so forgettable, but it was memorable enough that I’m really in no hurry to repeat the experience. What I do recall is that it was fun for a while, but got boring well before the end; that the lead characters were funny and charming, but the supporting cast was like assembly of one-note stereotypes; the gross-out dialogue offered some laughs, but the story was too broadly contrived to be convincing, and its romantic payoff was too cute. In fact, for a movie that’s being sold as an adventure in titillation, it seemed awfully pedestrian.

In what turns out to be a fable for the New Recession, Rogen and Banks play platonic roommates going broke who shoot a homemade porn movie to raise some cash. They shoot their movie on consumer equipment after hours in a coffee shop, enlisting a colourful cast of volunteers—played by actors ranging from Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob sidekick Jason Mewes to real-life porn icon Traci Lords. Although the comedy strays into the deep end with at least one scatological gross-out gag, the sex is actually very fake and very tame. Strip away the profanity, and there’s nothing transgressive or even original about this romantic comedy—the romance hinges on Rogen and Banks recognizing their true feelings for each other as they pussyfoot around a having to perform a perfunctory sex scene.

What Zack and Miri Make a Porno does represent is the cross-fertilization of two separate but related strains of slacker comedy—the low-rent genre pioneered by Kevin Smith and the Hollywood version created by Judd Apatow. Although he denies it, Smith must be more than a bit pissed to see Apatow being crowned the new king of comedy for finessing a formula that he created—a marriage of gross profanity, geek chic and sentimental romance, in which a babe falls for a potty-mouthed stoner dude obsessed with pop culture arcana. Smith says he wrote the movie with Rogen in mind, after seeing 40-Year-Old Virgin. And after Rogen had hit the big time with Knocked Up, Smith says he was surprised he was still willing to do work with him.

By casting Aptatow’s star protege, Smith has now built a bridge between two classes of slacker comedy, the convenience store brand and the big box store Hollywood brand—but at the end of the day, it’s still a bridge to nowhere.

What Just Happened?

Because I saw this movie in Cannes seven months ago, and my memory of it is even murkier, I did decide to give it a second chance. You can’t see the same film twice. You see it with different eyes the second time around, and either gets better or worse, which doesn’t necessarily mean you were wrong the first time. I liked What Just Happened? more on a second viewing. And given the choice between it and Zack and Miri, there’s no contest: it’s the better movie. I guess I was more forgiving of its limitations, and the satirical detail kept me amused, even if the script still doesn’t add up to much, and the story collapses in the final act.

Here’s what I had to say about it (in my non-blogging, fully-crafted print mode) in this week’s magazine:

What just happened to my career?

A showbiz satire starring De Niro as a veteran who’s losing his grip is all too close to home

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

It was a shock to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino do the Top 10 list on Letterman last month. Seated in clubby leather armchairs against a backdrop of books, like a couple of old coots presenting Masterpiece Theatre, they took turns rhyming off “The Top 10 Reasons I Like Being an Actor.” They were promoting Righteous Kill, a formula cop thriller that would come and go with barely a ripple. The bit was amusing enough. But it was as if they’d decided the only way to salvage some dignity from their latest paycheque movie was to submit to a self-deprecating send-up of themselves sliding into their dotage. (De Niro had the best line: “If you do a scene where you’re eating pudding, they often let you keep the pudding.”) It was all rather sad. Not so long ago, it was a huge deal to see these two titans of the method share a scene together for the first time, in Heat (1995). Now they’re reduced to talk-show shtick.

Last year in a GQ interview, director Francis Ford Coppola, who had worked with De Niro and Pacino in their prime on The Godfather movies, accused them, along with Jack Nicholson, of getting lazy and playing it safe. “They all live off the fat of the land,” he said. There’s a tradition of decadence and apathy among American acting legends, from Orson Welles to Marlon Brando. But despite frittering away his pedigree with dumb comedies like Meet the Fockers and Analyze That, De Niro has retained some of his mystique. That’s because, unlike Al and Jack, he’s not a natural ham bone. His default mode is stoical reserve, as if he’s put his talent away for safe-keeping. And he has a permanent air of world-weary resignation that suggests the good roles have deserted him rather than vice versa.

Directed by Barry Levinson, What Just Happened? is a showbiz satire scripted by veteran producer Art Linson, whose work includes The Untouchables, Fight Club, Into the Wild — and Heat. Basing it on his own book (subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line), Linson has conflated a Hollywood memoir into a fictional screenplay, casting De Niro as a workaholic producer named Ben who lives in terror of slipping off the A-list.

Ben has produced a thriller starring Sean Penn that ends with the leading man and his dog being shot dead. He’s up against the studio head (a crisp Catherine Keener), who vows to bury the movie unless the ending is softened, and a drug-addled Brit director who won’t compromise. Ben’s next movie is about to collapse because its impossible star, Bruce Willis, is sporting a massive beard that he refuses to shave off. Willis is such a nightmare that even his agent (a weaselly John Turturro) is scared to talk to him. Meanwhile, Ben is paranoid that his second ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) is sleeping with his screenwriter (Stanley Tucci).

Admittedly, all this sounds pretty juicy. And some of the details are authentic. (While producing The Edge, Linson faced a crisis when Alec Baldwin didn’t want to shave off his beard.) But the satire lacks the bite of The Player. Fear and loathing in Hollywood is a fatigued genre, and here the exercise seems pointless. We have no reason to care about any of the characters because in the end there’s nothing at stake — except the fate of a movie and one man’s career. And in that sense, What Just Happened? is afflicted by the same showbiz pathology that it’s depicting.

The film-within-a-film is shown opening the Cannes film festival, which invited it only for the stars — a jibe that cut rather close to the bone when What Just Happened? premiered in Cannes as the closing night gala, after a lukewarm reception at Sundance. I’ll never forget seeing De Niro at the Cannes press conference, being besieged by a mob of journalists snapping pictures and begging for autographs. As he dutifully complied, one woman rudely jumped up and wrapped her arm around him for a photo. De Niro grimaced. It was like seeing his character from What Just Happened? brought to life, a soldier from the Hollywood front line trapped in the no man’s land of his own movie.


 

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