- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
f you are old enough to have been paying attention to such matters during the early-to-mid 90s, you may remember that there was once a great deal of doubt that this "world wide web" thing would ever really catch on. One huge problem, probably the hugest, was how in the world to make money off of it. Well, that's still not entirely clear, but at one point, making money on a site was next to impossible.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that it was the online pimps of the 'net analogue to the world's oldest profession who were the first to figure out to how to safely and securely take credit card numbers over the web. In other words, it was porn that made all e-commerce truly viable, including Amazon and eBay. "Middle Men" is the heavily fictionalized story of how that happened, and how those pimps, some fairly well intentioned, got in seriously over their heads.
Luke Wilson stars as Texas businessman and nightclub owner Jack Harris, a deeply loyal family man who very much wishes to stay in the good graces of his feisty wife, Diana (Jacinda Barrett). Jack, however, stumbles over Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht), a pair of part-time computer geniuses and full-time drug-addled idiots whose status as best friends is something like a male bonding version of "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," but with fistfights. This bromantic George and Martha, it seems, have devised a way to sell naughty pictures online and are already generating so much cash that it's hard to find enough hookers and blow to waste it on. Jack finds himself tied in with the desperate twosome as they attempt to deal with Nikita Sokoloff, their extremely scary business partner from the Russian mob (a highly effective Rade Serbedzija).
Things go from horrifying to worse with an accidental murder committed by Jack's usually sensible business partner/bodyguard (Terry Crews). Later, immense success in the world of pornography inevitably strains the Harris family and marriage, as does exposure to the temptations of the skin trade in the form of gorgeous young porn star Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsay). Complicating matters even more is super-sleazy attorney and professional fly-in-the-ointment Jerry Haggerty (James Caan), who lures the malleable Wayne and Buck into a terrifying legal trap. And what of that FBI agent (Kevin Pollak) following Jack and Audrey around?
I've simplified it greatly, but trust me when I say there is too much story here for a film that runs just over 100 minutes. To try and cram it all in, the first hour or so is filled with truly excessive (but actually very well-delivered) narration by Luke Wilson. That narration stretches for so long it stars to feel like we're watching a summary of a movie, not an actual movie. Still, the individual scenes are often funny and suspenseful for as long as they last.
Even as the audience becomes increasingly unsure if "Middle Men" will ever settle down into a coherent plot, the first half remains reasonably entertaining; there's enough giddy energy to keep things hopping despite the problems. When Jack's legal problems and dissolving family life finally do become the focus of the story, however, the movie becomes mostly a drag, like the downside of an amphetamine high.
Though co-writer/director George Gallo certainly knows how to construct amusing scenes, he simply seems to have bitten off more material here than he has time or ability to chew. Gallo was first inspired to write films like "Wise Guys" and "Midnight Run" by "Mean Streets," and the Scorsese homages here are delivered with the roaring blatancy of a Keith Richard guitar riff played on a tuba. Including two of the most overused songs in all of cinema, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Sympathy for the Devil," shows a lot more chutzpah than judgment. I suppose Gallo assumed he'd get nailed with the "Casino"/"Goodfellas" tag regardless and figured he get all his Marty-ya-yas out.
Watching "Middle Men" relatively cold, I was struck by two things. First, there is the meaningless of its "inspired by actual events" introductory statement. (If you think about it, the “Lord of the Rings” and Harry Potter books were also "inspired by actual events.") Second, I thought, "you know, this would probably be a whole lot better if it were a long-form cable television show." When I eventually saw the press materials, I learned that "Middle Men" was, in fact, first conceived by producer Christopher Mallick and original scenarist and co-writer Andy Weiss as a heavily fictionalized version of Mallick's own life as a middle man between credit card companies and porn producers. I mourn the TV show that wasn't.
It's not a complete loss. There are many fine scenes and this is a good cast. Luke Wilson continues to grow as an actor. He delivers an honest and straightforward depiction of a decent-enough guy drawn into several forms of indecency. Wilson also makes a first-rate foil for Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht's funny and sad lunatics, who bring all the intensity required for their roles. James Caan, on the other hand, is a national treasure, but here he is saddled with a somewhat over-ridiculous and distracting voice as the mega-shyster, Haggerty.
We also have two fun cameos. Robert Forster is casually hilarious and utterly in sync with the universe as Louie La La, a kneecapping-happy shylock. Kelsey Grammer's performance as a hypocritical, politically minded D.A. is not quite that great, but it makes you wonder whether he's actually serious about going into politics as it could be used against him in an election.
So, "Middle Men" is what it is. Like Luke Wilson's Jack Harris, it's decent but perhaps fatally flawed. It attempts to do well and to do good by providing an audience with the entertainment it desires with a less than crystal clear moral lesson. And, like Harris, for all its ambition and good intentions, it ultimately winds up pretty much exactly where it started.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Paramount must not think too highly of “Middle Men,” because it was given a half-assed theatrical release last year, and now it’s getting the same treatment on Blu-ray. The audio commentary by director George Gallo, editor Malcolm Campbell and DP Lukas Ettlin is actually a good listen, but the rest of the extras – including three deleted scenes, outtakes, and a short montage of all the slaps in the film – are forgettable.