Making a film is dirty business.
Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened” get down and dirty with the film industry by offering an insider’s peak into filmmaking, but the resulting pictures are only similar in their failure to garner laughs.
In Smith’s gross-out film, Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) have been friends since high school but are now platonic roommates with a cash-flow problem. After a chance encounter with a gay porn star at a high school reunion, Zack comes up with the ingenious idea to make a porno that will make the lights come back on and keep the shower running. Since porn has “gone mainstream,” it’s only fitting that a coffee-shop barista and mall employee would be perfects stars for a box-office porn smash.
Their actual filmmaking process is more like a 12-year-old’s school project — except for the adult content, of course. Zack and Miri awkwardly agree that they will do their thing in front of the camera, then proceed to cast the rest of the film with a hodgepodge of sexual misfits. Filming proceeds haphazardly, with a practically non-existent script, but plenty of vulgar and lewd behavior. Unsurprisingly, none of it is very erotic.
The film takes silliness to new levels in its portrayal of the porn-making process, which would suit the subject nicely — if it were actually funny. Porn titles are usually so bad, they’re good, but the best Rogen and the gang can come up with are selections such as “Lawrence of a Labia,” and “Star Whores.”
In the midst of crude jokes, the film strives to create a warm and fuzzy feeling out of the collaboration involved in making porn. Zack and Miri “make love” onscreen and eventually fall in love, while the cast members form bonds under unlikely circumstances. It’s pure Hollywood romance that attempts to make a seedy subject a little less unlikable by playing on the communal aspect of making a film.
“What Just Happened” is a more realistic portrayal of the film industry, but it’s just as insignificant. The film follows two weeks in the life of a high-powered producer, Ben (Robert de Niro), who is juggling an unfinished project and a petulant Bruce Willis. With an insider’s feel à la “Entourage,” the film, in its best moments, delightfully dishes about a world in which movies are only worth their ticket sales.
The interactions among characters, each with their own agenda, is the most interesting to watch, as they reveal the sweat and tears that go into the making of a single film. A tortured director turns into a crazed druggie when a studio head crushes his artistic vision. Bruce Willis, cast as himself, toys mercilessly with the livelihoods of others when he refuses to shave off his beard at the studio’s request. With the antics of Hollywood stars splashed upon film covers daily, such behavior does not seem like such a far stretch from the truth.
Though the film’s representation of Hollywood is not entirely implausible, the film does not amount to much by its conclusion, as it focuses too much on the everyday life of a single producer. At its conclusion, the whirlwind of outrageous events that happen are inconsequential and unoriginal.
By focusing too much on the unsympathetic Ben, the film fails as an adept satire of Hollywood. Despite some comical moments, it is as shallow as many of those who are in the industry itself, conforming to well-known stereotypes.
“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and “What Just Happened,” attempt to poke fun at two industries known for being dirty lines of work. The later treats porn as a catalyst for love, friendship and warm water, but never goes beyond bawdy humor of the most shameless form. Though the former gives a more edgy look into the lives of those who live and breath the film industry, it’s too complacent with its male lead to be remotely satirical. The worst part is that these films manage to do the impossible — make provocative industries look terribly boring.