Frustrating, poorly-written, awkwardly-paced, and sometimes just plain dumb, Middle Men wants to join the subgenre of ensemble dramas about the seedy side of humanity that's led by Boogie Nights but doesn't have the personality or the style to do it. The story of a man who watched his life fall apart while he was busy making millions off the birth of internet pornography sounds like one that would be perfect for a daring, complex character study. But there's nothing neither daring nor complex about George Gallo's surface-level film, one that tries to tell a true story but never once feels real. With a lead character that's truly difficult to care about, twists and turns that stretch credulity, a lack of narrative structure, and a string of relatively weak performances, Middle Men would be lucky to rise to the median of a list of the films released in 2010. It's actually pretty far below "middle."
Middle Men tries to be many stories at once but the focus is squarely on the arc of Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), a man who crossed paths with a couple of bored junkies just as they were about to be inspired into the history books. According to the film – and its near-constant narration from Harris – the boom of internet porn started when a couple of guys figured out how to take credit card numbers securely online. The two men were the cokehead Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and the smarter-but-only-by-comparison Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht). They scanned pictures from dirty magazines and charged people to look at them online. Before long, they were taking original pictures of strippers at a club run by the notorious Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzjia) and went into business with the Russian mob. (Never a good idea.) When the boys went to Vegas and spent all the money that Sokoloff thought should go to him, things started to get dicey and a man named Jerry Haggerty (James Caan) convinced Jack to be the guiding force for the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of porn. Jack became the brains of the operation and immediately got them out of the production business, recognizing that the money to be made was as middle men. All they had to do was provide the billing software and take their cut without getting their hands dirty. What do they say about the best-laid plans?
The lessons of Middle Men are common for the genre. One, don't go into business with morons. Two, don't try to hide secrets from Russian mobsters. Three, don't expect to surround yourself with hot porn stars (including Laura Ramsey) and remain faithful to the wife (Jacinda Barrett) on the other side of the world. Four, figure out your story before you make a movie. Middle Men is one of the most haphazard and ill-defined screenplays of the year. It jumps through major sections of the allegedly-true story and never maintains its focus. Is Jack a good guy in a bad situation? Is he a businessman, a family man, or a ladies' man? In the film, he's none of the above. It doesn't help that Luke Wilson brings nothing to the character, giving yet another lazy performance, which is about all he seems capable of doing lately. He's simply dull here and with so much dramatic weight on his shoulders, his failure to register as a character worth giving a damn about is damning. The result is not unlike Boogie Nights with no Dirk Diggler. The supporting cast doesn't fare much better with actors like Barrett, Caan, Ribisi, and more delivering exactly what you expect them to. There's shockingly little surprise in a story that should be full of them.
And that's what's so disappointing about Middle Men. It's a film with twists and turns that never feels unpredictable. Not only is there never a reason to care about the arc of Jack Harris but there's not much to it. Without giving anything away, Jack Harris made some cash off the porn industry and got into a little trouble. We go to the movies to see stories about above-average or relatable men. This is just the story of a middle one and it's told in the mediocre fashion befitting his life.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: August 6th, 2010
Starring: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Jacinda Barrett, Kevin Pollak, Laura Ramsey, Rade Serbedzija, and Terry Crews
Directors: George Gallo & Andy Weiss
Writers: Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell