"Middle Men" finds Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) playing midwife to the birth of the Internet porn boom, helping two coke-addled idiot visionaries navigate their way through a maze of money, Russian mobsters, porn starlets and the FBI. Despite some slick camera work and fine performances, the film is ultimately a great story poorly told.
Structurally, "Middle Men" borrows so heavily from "Good Fellas" that Martin Scorsese could probably sue. The Rolling Stones soundtrack, the protagonist as omniscient narrator, the "How did it come to this?" timeline, the hyper-stylization are all taken straight from the master's playbook. As when Mickey Mouse tried using the Sorcerer's spells, what we end up with a bit of a mess.
The film, based in part on the experiences of one of the film's producers, Chris Mallick, who made millions in the '90s as founder of an Internet billing service, gets off to a rocky start with Harris' interminable and obvious narration. Did you know the Internet was unheard of in the mid-'90s? Did you know that you can now see porn it? And that people -- some of them shady -- makes lots and lots of money in cyberspace? Making matters worse is the string of time changes that serve to do little more than furrow the brow of audience members.
The reliably likable Wilson plays a former fixer for the mob who goes straight, putting his skills as a facilitator and problem solver to work in the business world. Harris knows, or knows someone who knows, everyone. Even before getting ensnared in the Internet boom, he knows just about all the players. Wilson lacks the edge and savvy, the shrewdness and duplicity, to play such a character, instead coming off as an in-over-his-head-schlub who manages to throw a couple of lucky punches. It's not a bad performance, it's bad casting.
Giovanni Ribisi is great as Wayne Beering, doing a riff on his hillbilly screenwriting savant on "Entourage," while Gabriel Macht does an equally nice job as his partner Buck Dolby, transforming from rocket scientist to pathetic mess over the course of the film. His character's development is helped along by a hilarious progression of clothing that hits every LA/Vegas partyboy d-bag cliche of the era. These guys were to porn what Gutenberg was to the Bible -- sure, there were plenty of fans before they came along, but their innovations made it cheap and accessible to everyone.
Writer-director George Gallo (best known for scripting "Midnight Run") makes plenty of mistakes along the way in telling this story, but to his credit, he resists sinking into a pit of gratuitous flesh, something easily done in a film about porn. There is no shortage of naked and gyrating bodies, but Gallo's camera doesn't stare, keeping the narrative moving. Not since "Caligula" have so many people in a film been so naked for so long without it being arousing.
As the story unfolds, one gets the sense that countless little moments were left on the cutting room floor -- can someone please explain why Jack's family never moves from Houston to the West Coast, which would've alleviated a lot of his and his family's problems? It was maddening. One line of dialog could've made the issue go away.
What makes "Middle Men" so disappointing is how much promise the story and the cast held. There was plenty of talent on hand, with a fascinating story to tell and they whiffed -- not by much, but they whiffed nonetheless. You almost hope someone decides to take a crack at remaking this in 10 years.