Somewhere in its middle section, Middle Men has a scene that details the porno-watching preferences of Islamic terrorists. If that doesn’t make a movie worth watching, please tell me what does. Middle Men is the new feature from George Gallo, who is best known, and justly, for his script for the action-comedy classic Midnight Run. It’s the story of the man who was instrumental in revolutionizing the nascent internet in the 1990s, turning it from the modest communication tool that it was, into the porn-infested worldwide hotbed of insanity that we all know and love today.
Luke Wilson plays Jack Harris (probably not his real name), the low-level business fixer who, through a string of coincidences and inevitabilities, is called upon to help out two guys with a revolutionary money-making innovation. Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar) and Gabriel Macht (The Spirit) play the pair of willfully idiotic cokehead savants who stumbled across the basic program allowing credit card transactions over the internet. Their true inspiration, however, is to pair that technology with the mega-popular but shame-soaked world of adult entertainment. At first, they scan and upload a bunch of magazine photos and charge anonymous customers for the privilege and viewing them, but then they hit upon the idea of filming videos of live models, which leads them to approach a strip-club owner (recognizable character actor and spellcheck-defier Rade Serbedzija) who is keyed into the Russian mob, which is where the problems begin. Jack Harris has a little experience with mollifying underworld figures, as seen in an early scene with a cameo by the great Robert Forster (not in the movie for long enough), so he gets the call to come help out with the Russian situation, and in doing so, a reluctant partnership is born.
Middle Men is worth a look for several reasons. For one thing, Luke Wilson is surprisingly good in it, and I say that as a big fan of the guy. It’s somewhat understandable that Like is so dismissed as an actor – he’s a low-key, amiable presence in studio comedies and indies alike, and is very rarely called upon to deliver the more energetic comedy or more intense dramatics that his frequent co-stars usually do. Then there are those phone commercials, and the apparent weight gain – Luke seems to have given up the pressures of manly good looks for comfort and well-feeding, and I can surely relate. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be unusually effective in dramatic scenes, as fans of The Royal Tenenbaums should have remembered and as his grounding of the sprawl of Middle Men resolutely proves. Clearly he’ll continue to be underappreciated, but hopefully more than a few people see how good Luke is in this flick. He’s also surrounded here by some incredible costars, including the legendary James Caan in a real departure of a role as a sleazy, schlubby lawyer. Even in his later performances, Caan is best known for playing raging, barking alpha-dogs, so this is new territory. He’s low-down and loser-ish here, and it’d be kind of sad if his character wasn’t so shifty and slimy. Great supporting role. I was also struck by the insanely cute Laura Ramsey as the young hot thing who Wilson’s character eventually gets wrapped up in. In all of the movie’s churning through the comedic value of these scumbags who turned celestial profits out of trading in porn clips, this character is a frustrating and just-under-the-surface tragic glimpse at the real girls who are held up as bodacious fantasy sex-robots and then inevitably discarded by a world that couldn’t care less.
The other worthwhile thing about Middle Men is that the subject it covers is thoroughly fascinating. Let’s not lie, we all know a lot more about internet porn than most of us will ever admit to knowing, but how much do we know about how it gets to our monitor screens and hard drives? How much do we know about the criminality that is so embedded in this multi-billion-dollar enterprise, and how much do we know about the cost in human flesh and heartache that it involves? I’ll certainly cop to some working knowledge of porn – I’ve seen my share, out of biological necessity, but I’ve always been more of a Hugh Hefner supporter than a Larry Flynt enthusiasy. Stuff gets scary when you venture past the PG-13 or the R rating, at least to an uncomplicated milk-and-cookies guy like me, and this movie kind of underlines the point. But it sure is interesting to witness the lengths to which people will go in the pursuit of pleasure, and it sure is interesting to learn more about the unscrupulous and shady types who work behind the scenes to provide it. I’m not sure if Middle Men is the definitive take on the subject, and seeing as how porn is silently the most lucrative business in the world, I think it bears more cinematic examination, but as a rare entry in an underexplored genre, Middle Men is a solid entry.
Are there flaws? Sure. Jacinda Barrett, as the increasingly alienated wife of the lead entrepreneur, gives a disappointing performance. Even if I didn’t know from The Real World that she is naturally British, it would still be immediately apparent that she is straining to give one of the worst Texas accents ever committed to film. That’s the kind of thing that consistently distracts, and deeply disrupts the portrayal of a character who really needs to be the emotional heart of the movie. Also, the voiceover narration runs perilously heavy throughout the movie, particularly in the early going, and that can make for a denser movie-going experience than is ideal. Lastly, and this may be an issue unique to myself, but the movie is nearly wall-to-wall music, which is good news when it involves Brian Tyler’s mood-setting score, but not so good when it’s almost entirely a soundtrack of played-out pop songs that we’ve heard in many, many movies before this one. There are a handful of Rolling Stones tunes, which call too much attention to the Goodfellas comparisons. That Hall & Oates song that played such a pivotal role in (500) Days Of Summer is here, as are more than one song from Moby’s Play album. (Remember not long ago, when every song from that album was in everything?) I’m sure there are people who delight in hearing overly familiar music cues – the whole concept of popular radio relies on the notion – but to me personally, it’s a major distraction. But otherwise, there’s more than enough to like about this movie.
It’s really impossible to discuss Middle Men without referencing its debt to Goodfellas, and its kinship to the many solid but indebted movies that followed, such as Blow. Middle Men is a modest epic, a years-spanning whirlwind of drugs and debauchery that is driven by descriptive voiceover from its increasingly-corrupt main character. Obviously, Middle Men isn’t on the level of Goodfellas, because what movies are? Still, you have to respect a movie with this kind of ambition, especially one which is so frequently successful. Middle Men is destined to be overlooked, with its lower promotional budget and its cast of underrated and undervalued B-listers, but it really is an entertaining flick and it very often does deliver on its ambition. It’s obvious by now that you guys aren’t going to go see it during its modest theatrical run, but please, give it a shot when it comes to DVD. You just might dig it a lot more than you might expect. And really, if you aren’t at least curious to see a movie where John Ashton (Beverly Hills Cop‘s Sgt. Taggart) has a shamefully rare cameo appearance and Luke Wilson and Terry Crews play best friends, you might be reading the wrong guy’s column in the first place.