Friday, November 14, 2008

Zach and Miri Try To Make An Apatow Movie

Zach and Miri Make a Porno Movie is about to disappear down the memory hole with Kevin Smith's career close behind. Or so it has seemed with each of his most recent films, each an increasingly desperate attempt at reinvention. I chronicle this descent into irrelevance full of schadenfreude.

Let's begin with the recent interview he gave to The Onion AV Club filled with delicious nuggets of self-loathing and heralded by this picture:

This is one of Kevin Smith's basic fat slob dork (to quote Kthor) stock expression for publicity stills, on the red carpet or in an environment where he actually had time to think of something else and this is what he's got.

These belong to the classic "nerd family of photo poses" that include the popular quizzical-raised-eyebrow-while-stroking-the-barely-hairy chin:

So, the slips! The peeks into the aperture! First there's the usual self-deprecation about his own writing, which only sounds worse the more time passes, followed by a foot-stamping show of indignance over the low standards he's created for himself.

Italics mine.

AVC: You've drawn criticism in the past for writing dialogue that all sounds like one extended monologue.

KS: I get accused a lot of every character sounding like me. Which I'm like, "Well, it stands to reason." [Laughs.] Because I did write every character.

AVC: Do you think writing with Seth in mind helped Zack And Miri sound different?

KS: No more than so than writing with Ben in mind, or Jason Lee in mind, or Jason Mewes. Once I have the person, I start writing to that voice, so it wasn't different. It wasn't like, "Wow, writing for Seth suddenly made it completely different than everything else." To me, it was part of the same process. But I think for some reason, the movie scores points, or it gets looked at in a positive light by people, simply by virtue of the fact that it doesn't have Jay and Silent Bob in it. It's not set in New Jersey, it's not part of the Askewniverse, it's not interconnected with references to my other movies. So nobody's sitting there saying, "Oh, he's self-indulgently making that same fucking movie again." Suddenly, by virtue of the fact that it's got people I haven't worked with before, and it's set in Pittsburgh, people treat it like a "real movie." [Laughs.]

.....But it's been weird watching people react to this movie as if "It's a new step, a new direction for that fucking Clerks guy." And really, to me, it's just like the other ones. It just doesn't have Jay and Bob in it.

Smith is nothing if not passionate about his own lack of originality and development yet he needs to be perceived as having new things to offer. What a painful niche, being beholden to fanboys while trying to sustain a career with mass audiences.

The need for mainstream audiences is why he got Seth Rogen. So dig how hard he tries to put on the aw-shucks spin regarding the matter.

AVC: Because of Seth's presence, do you worry about comparisons to Judd Apatow's movies dogging this film?

KS: Let me tell you something: If the whole world mistook it for a Judd Apatow movie, I'd be a happy fucking camper. As long as it did that Judd Apatow business, fine, they can call it a Judd Apatow movie all they want. [Laughs.] No, not at all. I like Judd, and I like the movies that Judd has done quite a bit. When I saw 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was like, "Wow, somebody made a movie that I would have made." Since we did Clerks, I've seen many comedies, but nobody was doing that thing that we did where you mix raunch and sweetness and sentimentality. And Judd did it, and he was insanely commercially successful with it. For years, I thought that if you want to make a movie that mixes raunch and sentimentality, you have a $30 million box-office ceiling, because people aren't interested. You know: "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter." They want a raunchy comedy or they want a romantic comedy, or they want something serious or something comedic. The blend never seemed to go beyond our highest mark of $30 million. Then 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up and Superbad shattered that completely, and suddenly it turned the type of movie that I love making into something commercially viable. Suddenly I felt like, "My job just got much easier in terms of trying to sell this." So thank God there's a Judd Apatow. Not to mention he brought us Seth Rogen. Without Seth Rogen, I've got no Zack And Miri.

The obvious question is, if Judd Apatow has merely been making the kind of films Kevin Smith pioneered, why have none of Smith saccharine-slob films since Clerks been major hits with lasting impact? Obvious answer is, he spent the subsequent 15 years catering to his base of obsessives rather than develop new communication skills. These were not comedies that women went to. They were aimed at the demographic whose aspiration is to sound like Brodie, or Randall, or Jay, or their Hollywood story whoring wannabe standup author.

Smith's refusal to grow is illuminated quite well by comparison to Judd Apatow's recent successes. The 40 Year Old Virgin is a classical premise. Had it been made in the 70s or 80s it may have been called Better Late Than Never. The unexpected success and continued viability of Apatow's brand came from a few factors that have escaped Smith's comprehension.

Jovial vulgarity aside - no one has a trademark on that - the only similarity these two men's films share is the empathy afforded to characters. Imagine Rob Schneider playing Steve Carrel's part for a reminder of how such comedian-vehicles are usually ground out.

Being relatable is something else. Guys may sit around calling each other gay, but when we see this as a movie scene, are they going to sound like real guys you would know or will they sound like a jabberjaw screenwriter with no editor? Seth Rogen's star was made the instant he told his sparring partner that he was gay because he listens to Coldplay.

In all of Kevin Smith's hyper-verbiage, he's never been able to write a funny line that sounds like a funny line from your real friend in real life. In his world everyone's got entire comedic monologues memorized and ready to go. Even the more likable characters from any of his films are hardly relatable, except possibly from the first Clerks.

Apatow's know-how-I-know-you're-gay scene is so casually politically incorrect and honestly true to life that it utterly deflates Smith's previous occasional forays into gay shtick as the snickering Catholic boy fodder they are. Innuendos between Jay & Silent Bob, Dante & Randal, Kevin Smith Guy A and Kevin Smith Guy B...No wonder Zach and Miri has a female Kevin Smith Guy B and a gay couple who are actual characters and not punchlines. Apatow figured out that grown Gen-Xers are, well, grown, and include women who don't laugh compulsively at male gay panic.

Smith's hyperbolic dirtiness is all contrivance, like 37 or stink palm. When Apatow gets flithy, there's reality-based context, like being thrown up on or giving birth. This is the difference between a manchild geek's perspective and that of normal people who also happen to go see comedy movies. Apatow knows that real life is funniest and often contains vulgarity. His films honestly reflect that worldview, eliminating the choice of sides between detached, debased young hipsters and the older squares in Middle America.

Compare also the ludicrousness of Smith's films more heralded for their drama and maturity. 1995's Mallrats, Smith's follow-up to Clerks, was panned for being a 90 minute sitcom with dirty jokes and comic book geekery. The 1997 reaction was Chasing Amy, starring renowned dramatist Ben Affleck and critically renowned for a more mature romantic story that showed Smith's maturity.

At the time, he took the compliments and wouldn't self-deprecatingly point out the ludicrousness of plot. Now he will. Chasing Amy is about a lesbian who turns straight after sleeping with Affleck. At various points Star Wars and comic books are discussed.

Compare that to The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. From the titles alone we understand the potential for outrageous comedy, while losing your virginity or knocking a girl up are near-universal experiences with the potential for real human drama, not merely sitcom misunderstandings.

Here Forgetting Sarah Marshall must be singled out for being the least authentic, most sitcom-esque Judd Apatow production. The supporting cast is still more recognizably human than a Smith film.

Smith's sole sincere attempt at human dramedy was Jersey Girl, a bomb with nerds and normals alike, reinforcing the evidence that Smith has no capacity for combining sweetness and sickness, only oscillation between the two.

Zach and Miri is his stab at imitating another filmmaker through the co-option of his star player. observed that for an overnight star, Seth Rogen has been successful only in films written by himself or Apatow. If he can't save him, who can?

Apatow has also bested Smith by having a better couture of actor-comedian-friends. Seeing Jason Mewes or Jeff Anderson show up isn't a pleasant surprise anymore, it's a pathetic reminder that all of Smith's pre-celebrity friends are still the only cornerstone of his cottage industry. Especially after Clerks 2.

Oh, and Star Wars. The titular porno is "Star Whores." The characters think it's funny, which is out of character even for a bunch of nerds Kevin Smith based on himself. Which suggests again that less than Jersey Girl, but more so than ever before, Smith needed this movie to appeal to normals and women. Which it didn't.

'Nuff said, true believers!

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