The words "internet" and "porn" didn't always go hand-in-glove. Borrowing from producer Christopher Mallick's own story, Middle Men recalls the days before "user-friendly." But, asks Kimberly Gadette, is it all that virtually compelling?
Even if a XXX film calls itself a bona fide "feature," the claim of a sophisticated plot is as believable as the likelihood that all the stars are Juilliard graduates. Goosing the level of disbelief even higher, it's head-shaking to note that George Gallo, the man whose 1988 screenplay of Midnight Run is considered one of best buddy comedies ever written, is the same Gallo who directed and co-wrote this, um, feature. This flat, amateur, random feature.
But the synopsis sure sounds good. In 1995, in the still-nascent stages of the user-friendly internet, there was no such thing as paying for online services. Onetime rocket scientist Buck (Gabriel Macht) writes a program so that men can download girlie pictures – followed soon thereafter by adult films – with a credit card. Luke Wilson's Jack, the "problem-solver" (nowhere in the neighborhood of the flash and efficiency of, say, Harvey Keitel's Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction), suggests that Buck and his coked-out partner Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) come up with a bland company name so as to keep the customer out of hot water when his wife sees the charges. Hence, the "24-7" billing company is born. In a series of flashbacks, the story of Jack's burgeoning business and his troublesome partners are relayed, always returning us to the high stakes of 2004, where we supposed to care if bland Jack can keep the Russian mob, the FBI, his idiot partners and his miserable wife at bay.
Given the film's examination of online porn, the tone is surprisingly mild, even apologetic, scrubbed free of any salacious overtones. While Middle Men's advertising promotes a bit of raunch ("the guys who brought the xxx to the www," and "business is a lot like sex ... getting in is easy, pulling out is hard"), we get lead characters who insist that they're only middle men, merely providing an internet billing business. Which might have been funny if this were a movie about characters steeped in denial. But they're not. It is confounding that the film supposedly zeroes in on one thing (internet billing) while we see another (bevies of boobed-out sex stars costumed in all manner of feather and fur, crowding the "billing" work place). Especially since the company is situated in an elephantine warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, the capital of the film porn industry, it would be nice to nod to what's going on in the backrooms. Unless all these sex stars are middle men, too?
Although the opening has a certain snap, the film soon settles into an endless yawn.
With half of his performance relegated to a chirpy voiceover, Wilson's Jack babbles at us with such lines as, "What happened next, you won't believe." "What I heard next I couldn't believe." And then we see and hear what happens next. And are we the least bit incredulous? Only at the idea that a onetime respected screenwriter would attempt to offer up such pap.
Other than a few interesting flares from Wilson over the years (in particular, the send-up of his Average Joe persona with 2006's Idiocracy), it seems that whatever gentle humor the actor projected early on has turned fallow. Here, he's a mere flatline, a chatty nice guy who finally feels a tug of adulterous interest toward a 23-year-old blonde porn star after years of playing the upstanding family man. When the third act suddenly turns into a crime drama (a child is kidnapped!), followed by a touchy-feely scene that comes out of nowhere (Jack reaches out to his adolescent son, a character we've never seen before), it's tonally jarring. Now that's something we don't believe.
His co-leads are also poorly drawn. Macht has nothing to do but stand in the center of the room, tsk-tsk-tsking over his out-of-control partner Wayne. As for Ribisi's Wayne, his role in the partnership remains a mystery. He's not the money guy, the idea guy, not any semblance of a guy at all other than the angry, self-pitying, drugged-up guy. If we had to guess, perhaps he's supposed to deliver the comedy. But then again, director/co-writer Gallo was supposed to deliver an engaging story.
If it weren't for James Caan's shyster Las Vegas lawyer, the whole, um, pornucopia would be a complete waste of time. But to watch him slyly working every line and close-up to a fare-thee-well is sheer delight. The decades-younger actors could have learned a thing or two from this acting pro about character, personality, intent. But hey, that's kids for you.
One more note: it looks like there's a typo in the title. Wasn't it supposed to be Middling Men?
Rating on a scale of 5 onetime porn stars, or ex-xxx's: 1
Release date: US: out now; UK: TBD
Directed by: George Gallo
Written by: George Gallo & Andy Weiss
Cast: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Jacinda Barrett, Laura Ramsey, Terry Crews, Kevin Pollak, Rade Sherbedgia, Robert Forster, Kelsey Grammer
Rating: US = R; UK = TBD
Running time: 105 minutes