Luke Wilson as Jack Harris
Giovanni Ribisi as Wayne Beering
Gabriel Macht as Buck Dolby
James Caan as Jerry Haggerty
Rade Serbedzija as Nikita Sokoloff
Laura Ramsey as Audrey Dawns
Jacinda Barrett as Diana Harris
Terry Crews as James
Stacey Alysson as Alexandra Raynes
Kelsey Grammer as Frank Griffin
Christopher McDonald as George Harris
Kevin Pollak as Curt Allmans
Robert Forster as Louie La La
Martin Kove as U.S. Senator
Claudia Jordan as Cynthia
Directed by George Gallo
Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) is a family man from Houston who has earned a rep by fixing tough situations. When he’s called out to Los Angeles by a high-powered lawyer (James Caan), he finds himself caught up in a situation where two drug-addicted slackers (Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht), who have devised a way to make money from selling porn on the internet, have gotten themselves into trouble with the Russian mob.
The idea of making a movie telling the story about the pioneers who figured out how people could pay for sex on the internet using their credit card is an interesting one; maybe someday someone will make a good movie about it, because George Gallo’s “Middle Men” isn’t it.
The title card claiming it was “Inspired by a True Story” probably should have been replaced by a far more truthful representation of the movie saying, “Inspired by ‘Casino’ and “Boogie Nights.’” Like so many filmmakers before him, Gallo was influenced by the work of Martin Scorsese and P.T. Anderson, and he does a good job aping their respective styles in those movies without ever achieving anything on the level of either.
The movie’s intro is promising enough as it explains how men throughout history, however famous or unknown, have looked for material to masturbate to, a witty enough way to introduce the concept of a movie about the origins of internet porn, but it sets up a tone that’s never carried through for the rest of the movie.
Luke Wilson’s Jack Harris is a Houston family man who has built a career around fixing other people’s problems, and there’s a big one in L.A. as Giovanni Ribisi’s Wayne and Gabriel Macht’s Buck, two junkie slackers, have discovered a way to offer nude pictures to men on the internet for the reasons mentioned earlier. To keep their business growing, they combine forces with a local strip club owned by the Russian mob, but forget to share the wealth with their partners as they start making millions. Jack is hired by a high-powered lawyer, played by James Caan, to fix this problem, but realizing Wayne and Buck are onto something enormous, Jack buys off both the Russians and the lawyer as they set up a new business, though things go wrong and Jack is suddenly dragged into a world completely foreign to him, while trying his best not to be associated as a pornographer.
The sad truth is that a story about the guys who created a way to charge credit cards on the internet is likely to be as boring as “Flash of Genius” if Gallo hadn’t spiced it up by throwing in all the Russian thugs and lots of half-naked women. As one would expect from an obvious “Casino” knock-off, everyone starts getting rich and then things start going wrong as Jack becomes the figurehead for the trio’s internet pay system, which causes more friction in the partnership.
Who knows why “Middle Men” is being sold as if it were a comedy, because it isn’t particularly funny. The only even remotely amusing moments involve the drug-fueled squabbling between Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht, the former chewing up so much scenery it gets tiring pretty darn fast. By comparison, Luke Wilson gives another flat and lifeless performance, pretty much killing the mood of the movie whenever his monotone narrative lets the viewer know essentially what we already know – things are going poorly. More than anything, he kills any chance of the weak attempts at humor from going anywhere. Meanwhile, James Caan seems to be doing a caricature of the big shot characters we’ve seen him do so much better in other movies. None of their worst moments come close to Jacinda Barrett’s horrid Texan accent, which just doesn’t pass muster. Fortunately, she’s out of the picture when Jack upgrades to sexy Laura Ramsey, an internet porn star who requires the trio’s services, only to be seduced by Jack’s savant-like charisma.
Gallo isn’t a bad director, but he relies too much on a formula that’s been well-tapped by Scorsese to the point where the telltale percussion intro from the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is likely to elicit a groan when it kicks in due to Gallo’s gall. He might have been better off trying to find his own identity as a filmmaker, though one wonders if this story could have sustained a movie if it had been told in a more straightforward fashion. The results are watchable but mostly boring since it offers very little we haven’t seen before.
The Bottom Line:
“Middle Men” isn’t just disappointing because it’s a squandered opportunity to tell what may have been an interesting story, but also because in trying to turn it into a more interesting movie, it’s perpetually derivative of so many better movies. One can only hope David Fincher finds a more original way to tell the similar story that is “The Social Network.”