George Gallo was obviously aiming for a tasty combination of dark humor and violence in “Middle Men,” but unhappily the dish turns out rather flat. What was meant to be a wild ride through the seedy underbelly of the early Internet instead becomes a tepid wallow amid a slew of unsavory but resolutely uninteresting characters.
The movie suffers, as so many do nowadays, from a crushing excess of narration. The first five minutes are devoted to a dull exposition by Jack Harris (Luke Wilson, intoning the lines in his usual sleepy monotone) of how he got involved in the on-line porno business. Harris continues to ramble on in voiceover throughout the picture, filling gaps in the narrative and explaining peoples’ motivations—the common crutch of screenwriters unable to tell their story through actions rather than words. At times the movie feels like an illustrated audio book, and you might feel inclined to take notes to keep up with the convoluted plot.
And what is the story? Harris, a Houston family man, is called to California to help manage a friend’s failing nightclub. As a result of a plea from sleazy big-time lawyer Jerry Haggerty (James Caan), he agrees to help two hapless goofballs who are in trouble with Russian mobster Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serdedzija). The duo—hopped-up ex-veterinarian Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and slightly less daffy ex-NASA techie Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht)—have gotten in on the ground floor of web porn by creating a homespun sex site that takes off, and to raise the capital needed to expand it they foolishly recruit Nikita to be their partner. Jack, who’s described as a master at negotiating his way through such difficulties, not only smooths things over but becomes, in effect, the guys’ COO.
As such he transforms the business from a straight porn site into what amounts to an Internet billing service that camouflages embarrassing credit-card transactions under a discreet-sounding name. Through it people can purchase very raw stuff online without fearing that what they’re up to will be revealed in their monthly statements. Business booms and Jack gets rich along with his partners—except for Jerry, who’s frozen out (unwisely, it eventually proves). Things get complicated, however, when Jack becomes involved with porn actress Audrey Downs (Laura Ramsey), which leads to the ruin of his marriage, and with FBI agent Curt Allmans (Kevin Pollak), who enlists his help in using their sites to pinpoint the location of terrorist customers and blow them away. And there are further wrinkles in the accidental killing of one of Nikita’s men (Graham McTavish) during a money transfer and in a secret deal Beering and Dolby set up with a scumbag promoter (Jason Antoon) to set up a website featuring underage girls—a legal no-no in an era obsessed with the evils of child pornography.
This complicated scenario offers a lot of opportunities for sharp satire and goofy comedy, but Gallo fumbles most of them, and as a result “Middle Men” just isn’t as much fun as it’s desperately trying to be. Part of the problem is that oppressive narration, which is ladled over everything like a thick sludge. But another is that it’s delivered by Wilson, who brings zero energy to the central figure in the plot; he mopes through the picture in his customary semi-slacker way, never convincing us that he’s the brilliant organizer and master negotiator we’re told he is. As for Ribisi and Macht, they’re supposed to come off as wild and crazy guys, but though Ribisi certainly succeeds in seeming like a loose cannon, he’s not a terribly amusing one, and Macht, as blandly handsome a young actor there is, is simply dull. Caan appears to be having more fun playing a gruffly scummy shyster than we have watching him do it, and Serbedzija goes through his repertoire of menacing glares to little effect. As for Ramsey, she’s easy on the eye but not much more—like her character, one supposes.
Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin suffuses the images with the sort of grimy glamour you expect in such a tale, and everything else on the technical side is good if not outstanding. But as you watch you might find yourself imagining how much better “Middle Men” would be if the script had some of the verve of early Mamet and the direction and acting had more punch. As it is, the picture is akin to Beering and Dolby—it’s teeming with clever ideas, but lacks the skill and intelligence to carry them through.