Chock-full of drugs, violence, and a multitude of varying angled boob shots, writer-director George Gallo’s Middle Men pretty much proffers everything you can want in a film based on the upstart company that brought porn to a computer screen near you. Taken straight from a chapter of producer Chris Malik’s life and initially penned as an HBO pilot, Middle Men is a salacious history lesson on how business deals and familial ties can rapidly sour in the uncharted, entrepreneurially bourgeoning world of the online porn industry in 1995.
Living a serene and sufficient life in Texas, businessman Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) gets a call from a helpful, yet fundamentally conniving, lawyer, Jerry Haggerty (James Cann), who heard of Jack’s successful record as a company fixer. Though skeptical, Jack agrees to fly out to Los Angeles to meet with Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht) and Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi), eventually spearheading their recent computer-programming innovation, the first online template allowing customers to purchase goods globally via credit card. Utilizing their newfound technology to internationally exploit man’s desire to look at obscene videos of naked women, Buck and Wayne make a dubious arrangement with a Russian mobster to film in mob-owned strip joints for a cut of the profit, and as their company starts raking in dough, everyone involved elbows for a larger piece. Each consequential, perilous choice made by the fumbling moneymakers leads to another disastrous incident in expected fashion; with the use of Wilson’s overbearingly constant narration, Gallo holds the audience’s hand through subsequent plot points, never allowing for ambiguity. Also, the completely ludicrous, leftfield ending involving the mob kidnapping the wrong child sets up a quaint reunion between Jack and his ex-wife; we’re made to believe that Jack’s abandoned wife would take him back immediately, wiping clean all the strife she suffered with just a final, effortless smile from Jack.
Blanketed in a saturated palette of shadowy, dense colors, Middle Men tonally aims for, and somewhat achieves, a lurid mix between a juicy morality tale and Boogie Nights’s fetish for nostalgia. Save for Wilson’s Jack and a surprisingly forthright, clever porn star, Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey), the characters are thinly written, with actors easily slipping into familiar roles and mannerisms; playing a character coked-up in nearly every scene, Ribisi replicates the twitchy shtick from his Friends days. There’s a giddy swiftness to how the film’s events unravel, especially when a deal goes awry leaving one Russian mobster dead. But the brisk, dark humor might have been better left on the page, as comedic scenes, like the kidnapping mishap, are just plain ridiculous. Gallo’s sensational porn tale, though, lacks impact, only reflecting on the time period in the most superficial and simplest of terms. We’re left with the sinking feeling that the director would rather make a film about porn than the characters behind it all.