YEAR: 2008
DIRECTOR: Kevin Smith
KEY ACTORS: Elizabeth Banks, Seth Rogen
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 6.6
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 65%

SEX SCORE: 0/5
❌ I struggled with this film and didn’t find it very funny. I don’t think I can watch it again!
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast. I don’t really like any of them!
❌ Being watched is a kink of mine and I love the idea of being filmed…but somehow this film presented the idea of porn in a way that I didn’t want. Simply, none of my fantasies of being filmed are funny!
❌ This film definitely fails the Bechdel test.
❌ As usual, the sex positive question is a tough one. My immediate instinct is no – it’s porn and sex worker negative, it’s crude, it’s not funny, it’s misogynist…yeah, I can’t give it the point even though there are some redeeming features!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster for Zack and Miri make a porno, with Seth Rogen looking worried standing next to Elizabeth Banks who is looking coquettish

I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend. Perhaps I shouldn’t have as I knew before I started that it wasn’t for me. I struggle with comedies, particularly this type of comedy – I don’t think my tastes are that obscure or unique but I don’t get most comedies and I definitely don’t get the gross out stupid ones that have been so popular in the last few years. I didn’t enjoy Anchorman. I don’t get 40 Year Old Virgin. I really don’t like Meet the Parents. Too many make me want to cringe and leave the room, or make jokes about subjects that I don’t think should be mocked. Pertinently for this film, I haven’t yet seen a Judd Apatow film I’ve enjoyed. It’s just not my sense of humour. Kevin Smith is also hit and miss (Dogma – hit, Chasing Amy – miss. Don’t @ me). So watching a movie about making porn made by Kevin Smith starring Judd Apatow regulars, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks? There was a reason I’d not seen it before…

…and I wasn’t wrong. I really hated this movie.

The plot is simple – Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) have been friends forever. They’re now living together and are completely broke. They can’t pay their bills and as more and more utilities are cut off, they decide to make a porn film to pay their debts. All is going well until they have sex with each other and realise that they are in love after all.

Zack and Miri are dressed as Princess Leia and Han Solo. They are embracing and holding fake weapons decorated with sex toys

This all sounds very sweet but, unfortunately, I found the whole thing really problematic. It’s another film where I wonder if time has been unkind and it wasn’t so offensive in 2008. That may only be 11 years ago but so much has changed that it could be a lifetime. 2008 was before #MeToo – this is a Weinstein Company movie after all – and before so many social movements became mainstream. From trans rights to Black Lives Matter, the world is a different place to the one this movie was made in.

Which does bring up questions about considering and judging culture within the context of the time it was made, but I’m not sure that these jokes were considered inoffensive when the movie was made. The whole point was that it was crude and offensive and edgy. A contemporary Time Out review described it as going ‘out of its way to unite the basest preoccupations of a decade of gross-out comedy: bodily functions, gay jokes, race relations and the hilarious marital habits of black folks, all tied up in a torrent of filthy language that would make Eddie Murphy blush.’ It’s supposed to be offensive; it’s just that the subjects were considered to be fair game to be mocked, and I strongly disagree.

The rest of the stars of the porno stand around the camera

It could be argued that I just haven’t got the joke. It could also be quite fairly argued that my discomfort makes me a snowflake, although I don’t believe that that’s an insult, and I am on the offended side of the ‘new divide between those who think that comedy shouldn’t offend, and those who insist offending is at the heart of good comedy.’ But it doesn’t change the fact that these jokes are picking on groups that remain socially vulnerable and I don’t like that.

Justin Long is excellent but I don’t think we’ve reached a place yet where homosexual stereotypes can be mocked and caricatured without containing an edge of cruelty, without punching down. The same can be said for the sex workers and porn stars in this movie – they’re shown to be funny but only because we are looking down on them from a position of moral superiority. Miri says that other people don’t resort to making porn because they ‘have options…and dignity!’ Because making porn is undignified, a last resort, humiliating…and so it’s funny? Even those jokes that so nearly get it right ended up annoying me, such as a bit about inequality of sex toy acceptability between genders descending into jokes about how pathetic male masturbators are – ‘Why would you want a pocket pussy? That’s so sad!’ – which is unlikely to make those of us with penises feel happier about buying them.

This is a bit of a tangent from a movie review but I am fascinated by offensive comedy and why something intrinsically horrible and unkind is so popular. Robin Ince writes about it in his excellent book about the humanity of comedy, I’m a Joke And So Are You. As he discusses, it is difficult to find the right balance when running the ‘gauntlet between humour and offence’ and working out what is funny and what is just cruel. Ince found that interrogating his own jokes, working out which he was still happy to defend and which he felt weren’t funny enough to risk offence, helped him isolate his own position on this balance, particularly as ‘it is almost impossible for the entire audience to receive the joke as intended’ and someone somewhere is bound to be offended.

But there are levels and there are limits and, for me, this film goes too far. As Ince correctly questions, ‘why are the victims in the jokes by “edgy” comics so frequently people who are more likely to be victims of abuse in real life, too?’ Yes, there is a thrill in the shock of some outrageous humour as we ‘revel in the “naughtiness” of laughing at what [we] shouldn’t’ but it comes at a price. Maybe I am being too sensitive, or maybe this film is too shocking for me and goes too far.

Or maybe Zack and Miri just isn’t funny enough to pay the price for that shock. Comedy can be inclusive and still be funny. It can still be edgy and shocking without being at the expense of those who are more vulnerable – it just takes extra thought. Sofie Hagen is a comedian who works hard to ensure that she is as politically correct as possible, even getting activists to check her language, but she is insistent that being so politically aware and non-offensive doesn’t mean that she is nice: ‘I will fight to my death for your right to feel safe, but I’ll be a fucking cunt to your face.

Whatever the reason, most of the jokes in this movie left me cold. Which isn’t that great for a comedy!

I had one other big problem with this film. I really didn’t like Zack. For a start, he embodies another problematic Hollywood trend – the attractiveness gap. Obviously, beauty is subjective but I don’t think I’m stretching too far to state that Elizabeth Banks is hotter than Seth Rogen. Like in so many rom coms and TV shows, the ridiculously hot woman ends up paired with a pretty average guy. Interestingly for this film considering its cast, this is a trope that Judd Apatow uses repeatedly – fulfilling ‘the male fantasy that you, too, can be a lazy zhlub with barely any redeeming qualities and still get a super-hot wife willing to put up with it.’ I don’t like it. It’s great for the men, not so much for the women, and it promotes an inequality that helps no one.

Miri is looking hot in red heels, a denim skirt and her shirt tied open to reveal a black bra. Zack looks ridiculous in a postal workers outfit of brown shirt, shorts and boots

That’s not the main reason why I dislike Zack, however. I dislike him because he is so patronising to Miri. (I wanted to say ‘and the other women in this film’ but it is so light on female characters that I actually can’t think of another significant interaction with a woman!) There’s obviously a lot of crude buddy-buddy banter between them, because that’s the type of friends they are, but Zack repeatedly tries to make decisions about who Miri gets to have sex with. It’s so possessive and patriarchal. When sorting out the scenes for their porno, everyone has sex with more than one other person, except Miri because Zack didn’t think she’d want to. He didn’t ask, he just assumed – and not even assumed that she wouldn’t want it; he assumed that she couldn’t handle it. And having persuaded him that she could, her sex scene with Lance comes just after her and Zack’s mammoth and plot defining row, so Zack just presumes that she won’t be up for it after all. He doesn’t want her to do it so he decides that she doesn’t either. It’s paternal and I hate it.

It particularly grates as Zack has previously shamed Miri for the number of partners she’s had, using it as a reason why she is capable of demeaning herself by doing porn (the film’s inference, not mine). He doesn’t think of her as an equal sexually – her casual sex is shaming, his is empowering; he is able to make decisions about what to do with his body, she is not. Urgh…

So I really didn’t like this film!

But luckily, before finishing this review, I spoke to my friend Kate (who writes incredible erotic fiction by the way) about why she liked it so much. She agreed that it has flaws, but she still thinks that Zack and Miri’s sex scene is one of the most beautiful she has ever seen.

This is because when Zack and Miri finally have sex, it’s pretty awkward. When seen from the perspective of the others in the room, it’s really nothing special. In fact, it looks actively bad! As I watched, I noted the lack of foreplay with all the usual emphasis on PIV as ‘sex,’ plus I scoffed at the idea that she’d come from sex like that, chalking this up as another example of sex being all about the guy.

But when that sex is seen from Zack and Miri’s perspective, it’s extraordinary! Music is playing, the lighting is gorgeous; they both look so happy, and they both look like they’re having a fucking great time! And that’s the key, Kate explained – what sex looks like from the outside to people who are watching and not doing bears almost no resemblance to what that same sex feels like to the people actually having it. Sex isn’t like porn! This is something that I believe so strongly and I yearn for more realistic depictions of sex in porn and movies, but I still missed it when it was right in front of me. In my defence, this nuanced revelation was out of tone with the rest of the film and the contrast was played for laughs, but the sex itself wasn’t a joke. It was real first time sex. As Kate told me, ‘that scene gave me hope, it showed that even with someone you love and trust, first time sex is still often awkward even if it’s also glorious.’

I can’t forgive this film for its numerous flaws. The bad bits are just too horrible. But I’m so happy that Kate showed me this little diamond amongst the shit because, if nothing else, it’s shown me that I too look at sex scenes too superficially, wanting them to be traditionally hot and letting the fact that this means they’re often not real get in the way. She’s right – it is a beautiful sex scene. Not because of the lighting or choreography or anything like that, but because of its reality.

I still don’t think it’s funny though.

Next week: Y Tu Mama También

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.