You know what the most entertaining thing about internet pornography is?
If you just said, “Why, its apocryphal origin story, of course,” then you’re probably one or more of the following: 1) a person of unassailable moral character, 2) forgetting something, 3) not being entirely forthright, or 4) in the room with a parent/significant other/person around whom you’d rather not exultantly exclaim, “the glorious and majestic sight of untrammelled human genitalia!” Further, and more to the point: If you said “origin story,” I’ve got a movie to recommend.
(Also, don’t talk to your reading material. It’s kind of like playing with your food.)
Middle Men, directed by Midnight Run and Bad Boys writer George Gallo, spins the purportedly based-on-truth yarn of Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), a mild-mannered Texas family man — and supposed semi-surrogate for the film’s producer, Christopher Mallick — who, in questionable partnership with a pair of inspired but skittish layabouts (Giovanni Ribisi and The Spirit’s Gabriel Macht), helped revolutionize, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the way in which “adults” view and purchase that certain brand of “content” which is “oriented” toward them. (No, not stock tips. We’ll talk later.)
The idea (porn-subscription services via — here’s the kicker — online credit-card billing) is theirs; the commercial horse sense his. On a recommendation from an associate, Jack, who has a reputation as a “fixer,” meets with the wastrel wunderkinder, pries them out of a tight spot with the Russian mob, and expands and streamlines their business model — all the while protesting that he’s just a businessman, and has “no interest in making a living creating porn.” Nonetheless, the three become inordinately wealthy in an unfeasibly short span. They start living it up, cross paths with sundry colorfuls and unsavories, climb into (ahem) bed with some, run seriously afoul of several, and, in general, have a predictably up-and-down time of it until things really begin to fall apart.
If you’re saying, “Huh: That sounds sort of like GoodFellas or Blow, except with porn as its plot-pivot,” we talked about this out-loud thing, but you’re not excessively far off. Awash in easy, drawling, not-un-Liotta-like voiceover (courtesy of Wilson), peppered occasionally with stylized editing and/or camerawork, tinged by organized-crime conventions and a soundtrack thick with the Stones and hip nostalgia, Middle Men does call GoodFellas to mind — which association, for the former, is double-edged. An audience member can, having made that association, relax and know, in a sense, what to expect. I can say, “Middle Men is like GoodFellas for the internet-porn industry,” and it 1) somewhat legitimizes the film and 2) tells you, likely, whether you want to see it. The catch, however, is likewise twofold: 1) I’ve now spent a paragraph addressing it, and 2) Middle Men isn’t as iconic, clever, or distinctively cool. Which isn’t to say it isn’t entertaining: It is, surely. It’s funny. It moves, and takes you with it. It doesn’t, though, feel as immediate or realistic as I’d have liked (which is odd, since a firsthand source helped lead production); the acting and writing, though good, aren’t as sharp; the storytelling, as a whole, isn’t as fresh or dynamic. It’s hard to criticize, because Middle Men works. It’s satisfying. It just doesn’t shine. Yes, even a lesser GoodFellas is worth watching, and this is. But if you’re doing something that’s been done before, you have to give folks a reason to pick yours over theirs, else you have to settle for “pretty good.” Middle Men is pretty good. •
Dir. George Gallo; writ. Gallo, Andy Weiss; feat. Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Jacinda Barrett, Kevin Pollack, Laura Ramsey, Rade Serbedzija, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer, Graham McTavish, Robert Forster (R)