Middle Men: The Internet Is for Porn

This movie is for cheap moralism and bad history.
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Posted August 4, 2010 by KRISTIAN LIN in Film

Middle Men’s version of history is a lie. According to this movie, it was the pornographers who invented online shopping before the major retailers or credit card companies cracked the problem. If that were true, it would mean that every time you logged on to purchase rock concert tickets, designer bath towels, or the latest Stephenie Meyer novel, you’d owe it all to porn. This idea clearly tickles the filmmakers. It tickles me too. It’s not true, though — SSL encryption was invented by the programmers at Netscape. Sexy, huh? This fudging with the truth would matter a lot less if Middle Men were the fun, filthy lark that it promises to be. Instead, it turns into a gloomy morality tale.


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Luke Wilson plays Jack Harris, a businessman who leaves his family behind in Houston in 1995 to manage a friend’s bar in L.A., a job that he does magnificently. He owes his gig to a shady lawyer named Hagerty (James Caan), so he can scarcely refuse when Hagerty asks him to clean up a mess caused by two self-employed porn-loving computer whizzes named Wayne and Buck (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) who’ve tangled with Las Vegas hotel security. Jack soon discovers that Wayne and Buck have figured out how to sell sex pictures online, but they’re cokeheads with no idea how to run a business. They’re lucky, then, that Jack — who has no particular interest in porn — nevertheless instantly knows how to refine their invention so that everybody can make a pile of cash. Then again, Wayne and Buck are also idiots with huge egos who can’t leave well enough alone, and they soon get Jack in deep trouble with both the Russian mob and the FBI.

Middle Men is based on the experiences of Christopher Mallick, the Texas businessman who serves as a producer on the film. He’s now a player in the “legitimate” entertainment world, but he previously founded PayCom Billing Services, which indeed made its money acting as a middle man between pornographers and their online customers. Given this, we might expect this movie to be a sanitized look at porn that depicts the industry as a lot of harmless fun. Surprisingly, director/co-writer George Gallo goes too far the other way and renders the action (and the writhing naked women who are constantly in the background) with a puritanical fastidiousness. He seems to think that people who make their living in porn — even if they’re only crunching numbers like Jack — inevitably wind up miserable, lonely, and imprisoned or dumped over the side of a sailboat off the coast of Catalina.

That attitude helps leach the enjoyment out of this movie, but it isn’t the sole culprit. Wilson gives his typical low-energy performance here and demonstrates little chemistry with either Jacinda Barrett (with an unsteady Texas accent) as his neglected wife or Laura Ramsey as the porn star with whom he has an affair. The story is resolved with a heavy-handed child-kidnapping subplot that the movie doesn’t nearly begin to earn. Gallo’s directorial touches include musical cues that are so obvious as to insult your intelligence (Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” OutKast’s “The Way You Move,” The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) and voiceover narration that sometimes pays off (as in the quick montage of men consuming pornography through the ages) but more often results in tedious, unnecessary exposition.

The thing is, without all the moralizing about porn, this movie could have been a sharp little crime thriller. Wearing a full beard and oversize shades, Ribisi makes a compelling lowlife. The scenes between him and Caan are exquisite comic relief, with the crooked lawyer constantly trying to get Wayne to calm down and tell him what has caused the latest crisis. There’s an engagingly daffy interlude with the FBI enlisting Jack’s help in using porn to fight Middle Eastern terrorism, even if it culminates in an explosion that serves as a deeply embarrassing visual gag. Gallo does well handling the altercation between Jack’s bodyguard (Terry Crews) and a Russian underling (Graham McTavish) that gets out of hand, as well as the nifty ending that has Jack getting rid of multiple sources of trouble with the stroke of a pen.

None of this makes up for the finger-wagging tone and general lack of exuberance here. There are better movies about the porn industry and better movies about the new technology that brings us porn and much else. Next to those, Middle Men is just an exercise in masturbation.

 

Middle Men

Starring Luke Wilson and Giovanni Ribisi. Directed by George Gallo. Written by George Gallo and Andy Weiss. Rated R.


One Comment


  1.  

    This did not turn out well. Christopher Mallick up on charges again.





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