Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) -vs- The Amateurs (2007)

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

When the economy gets tough, the tough make porno.  That’s the big “high concept” of our two films in the ring today.  Based on the news from Wall Street, better brace for an avalanche of nudity and meaningless sex.  Oh, well…

Popular culture and the movies give form to our preoccupations and anxieties. Okay, there’s no explanation for “The Love Guru” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Other movies effectively connect the dots on themes like politics (“W,” “Syriana”) and human foibles (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Knocked Up”). The newest release from Kevin Smith fits the formula in combining SEX with THE RECESSION for laughs.  “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” started a buzz with a trailer that doesn’t contain a single frame from the film. It promises the sort of movie Smith produced over seven earlier features: engaging, funny and potty-mouthed. In this regard it echoes the spirit of writer / director Michael Traeger’s well-regarded, but little-seen “The Amateurs.”  It sets up a natural SMACKDOWN!: Which movie best captures the funny side of economic uncertainty?

The Challenger

Zack (Seth Rogan) works at a coffee shop, Miri (Elizabeth Banks) at a mall. By their own estimate, these platonic friends in Pittsburgh haven’t set the world on fire. They can’t meet the rent on the modest house they share and the utilities have been turned off. Over beers they brainstorm a turnaround: Let’s make a porno movie! Their project gets off the ground, as Zack puts the touch on a co-worker for production money and they recruit talent for the shoot. “Star Whores” is about to begin production when wreckers flatten their makeshift “studio” for new condos. No problem: They move the production to Zack’s coffee shop and rename the flick “Swallow my Cockaccino.”
Along the way, a movie gets made. Zack and Miri learn about film making, and themselves. Kevin Smith wrote the script he directed.

The Champion

The entire town of Butterface Fields gets caught up in Andy Sargentee’s mid-life crisis. He’s a low-voltage dreamer whose plans never develop. It’s cost him a marriage and a large chunk of self-respect. Over a beer Andy (Jeff Bridges) concludes that sex colors every aspect of modern life: So, why not make a porno? That premise gives life to “The Amateurs.”

One by one Andy’s friends chip in with money or encouragement or both: Barney (Tim Blake Nelson), Otis (William Fichtner), Helen (Glenne Headly) and Some Idiot (Joe Pantoliano). They eventually cobble together a script and cast, but can’t exactly handle the idea of filming their neighbors in a sexual romp. The entire crew turns around from the action when the filming begins. The only copy of the completed film is destroyed during the local premiere. A replacement version is assembled from outtakes.

It is a hundred miles different than the film they envisioned —  and so is “The Amateurs.”

The Scorecard. Both films earned their ‘R’ rating and they share other distinctions. Superior ensemble acting, especially in “The Amateurs”: Ted Danson, Lauren Graham, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Isaiah Washington, Valerie Perrine, Steven Weber, Judy Greer, Brad Garrett and Eileen Brennan give Butterface Fields a distinct character and texture. Many characters are slyly named after those on “The Andy Griffith Show. At its heart, “Amateurs” is sweet natured and even plays a little like Mayberry. Throw in compelling performances by Bridges, Nelson, Fichtner and Glenne Headly and you wonder why this production sat for two years before finally being released. An earlier version of this movie was titled “The Moguls.”

“Zack and Miri” did not languish for want of a distributor. As actors, Rogan (“Knocked Up,” “Pineapple Express”) and Elizabeth Banks (“W,” “Seabiscuit,” “Spiderman”) are believable together. Rogan has not worn out the doughy, lovable slacker we’ve seen before; Banks provides an easy fit and together they are surprisingly tender. They have fun with an odd ensemble that include Smith’s cohort Jason Mewes (“Clerks”, “Dogma,” “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”) and adult video veterans Traci Lords and Katie Morgan. They are good sports, especially when the humor gets raunchy, as it often does. If you’re easily offended you won’t laugh at Jason Mewes naked or a sex scene gone very wrong.

Can you sense a winner when pornography tugs laughs out of economic uncertainty? Yes.

The Decision

You won’t see either film on regular TV. Both are distinguished by superior acting, rough humor and a warm heart. An intriguing mix. You may never see anything so uncomfortably funny as Jeff Bridges’ scene in the coffee shop with Isaiah Washington. Or as gross when the cameraman in “Zack and Miri” stays too long on the set.

I suspect Kevin Smith added to his reputation for filming idiosyncratic characters in funny, off-color stories. If you know what to expect, “Zack and Miri” is a lot of fun. It will find its audience.

In the long run it’s not the better film. “The Amateurs” like “Zack and Miri” plays against your expectations, but its center is more sentimental, warmer, its characters more developed. The language uses more euphemisms than clinical description. The overall tone ultimately reminds you of storytelling that defined the style of Frank Capra. Quite an achievement, given the material.

The fact this film was almost not released makes our winner even more remarkable. We’re lucky it wasn’t lost. Both movies may become cult hits, but you’ll be honestly touched by our winner, “The Amateurs.”


About Mark Sanchez

Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.
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3 Responses to Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) -vs- The Amateurs (2007)


  1. Finally got around to watching ZACK AND MIRI on a Blu-Ray tonight. There’s not a lot to it except that Seth Rogan is so damn easy to like. I think THE AMATEURS is the better film because it feels more like a story than a single long sketch. But Tom is probably correct — it’s a generational thing.

  2. Mark Sanchez says:

    Thanks for the note, Tom.
    You’re right: You are at a real disadvantage burying a film before you bother to see it. Ask Roger Ebert. I can’t imagine making a rational choice without doing that.

  3. Tom Lott says:

    The Amateurs over Zack and Miri? Clown shoes!
    I’m at a disadvantage not having seen the Amateurs, but I can’t help but feel Mark is more impressed by the parade of B listers on hiatus and the happy Frank Capra-ilke patter than the tight ensemble work and the intimate razor sharp wit of Keven Smith’s Zack and Miri. With the Amateur’s Mayberry-in-tone reference, I suspect you won’t have a punch in the gut scene like the unspeakably funny sex scene gone wrong in Zack and Miri.
    Again, I’ll stress I have not seen the Amateurs, but based on this description, I’m not certain I’ll seek it out. I’m probably not far off in describing the differences like a pair of old comfortable slippers vs 5 inch Lucite spike heels. I know which sounds more fun.

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