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‘Zack and Miri’ a sweetly naughty ‘Porno’

“Zack and Miri Make A Porno” is a sweetly naughty film that features writer-director Kevin Smith’s trademark balance of romance and raunchy humor.

Economic times being what they are, people often go to extremes they never thought themselves capable of. So when lifelong pals and current platonic roommates Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) find themselves unable to pay the rent and the utilities, who can blame them for getting into the blue-movie business?

That’s the premise of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” and it’s a lovely, naughty little movie that allows writer-director Kevin Smith to indulge his twin penchants for scatological sex talk and heartfelt slacker romance. Having old friends realize they love each other during the making of a pornographic video might not be the usual romantic comedy convention, but no one could accuse the maker of “Chasing Amy and “Dogma” of pursuing the tried-and-true.

Zack and Miri both work dead-end jobs — he slings lattés, she’s in retail — but they decide to attend their 10-year high school reunion so that Miri can hit on Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), the football jock who was her teenage crush. Much to her chagrin, Bobby shows up with his boyfriend, gay adult film star Brandon (Justin Long), who tells all about his current gig to an endlessly fascinated Zack.

Once Zack and Miri’s power and water get turned off, he decides that going into porn will be the answer to their financial difficulties. And despite some early resistance — Miri: “Other people don’t have to have sex on camera.” Zack: “Other people have options. And dignity.” — they throw themselves into the project. Zack’s co-barista Delaney (Craig Robinson) invests in the film and becomes executive producer, while Zack and Miri hold a series of hilarious auditions for their co-stars.

For the two old friends, though, actually having sex — even in front of a video camera and a crew of low-budget porn-makers — winds up being a game-changer, which is what “Zack and Miri” is for Smith. As the filmmaker matures, so do his characters, and after getting the amusing but featherweight “Clerks II” out of his system, it seems that Smith is ready grow as a filmmaker while still embracing his very R-rated comic sensibilities. The result is his smartest and funniest film since “Chasing Amy.” (Full disclosure: Smith and I are professional acquaintances, and he participated in a charity event I organized earlier this year.)

Smith has always had a gift with young actors — he is, for better or worse, responsible for launching the careers of Ben Affleck and Jason Lee — and his streak continues here. Rogen has become comedy’s favorite lumpen Everyman, and his rapport with Banks confirms his status as a dashing romantic lead in a schlubby stoner’s body.

For her part, Banks achieves a sprightliness that eluded her in this year’s “Definitely, Maybe,” and she’s very game to get dirty (talking) with the boys’ club. Smith regulars Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes — the latter going full-frontal seemingly without batting an eyelash — have fun with the material, but the best of the second bananas is definitely Long, vamping it up and having a blast as a gay porn stud. (Kudos to Routh as well — who knew Superman could be funny?)

It’s ironic that the film’s title is causing trouble for advertisers and even some theater chains, since “Zack and Miri” deals directly with the fact that, in the age of the internet, porn isn’t the shocking taboo subject it once was. The wonderful, short-lived series “Swingtown” devoted an entire episode to the 1970’s controversy surrounding “Deep Throat”; that film’s director died this week, and he probably never imagined a world where we’d all have naked people at our fingertips, so to speak.

But once audiences get past the inherent shock value of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” they’ll find a laugh-packed and tenderhearted tale that explores the accidental crossing of the line between having sex and making love.