Wild Las Vegas parties, porn stars, coked-up geniuses, dirty lawyers, dead bodies, the Russian mob and one man lost in the middle: “Middle Men” is one of those movies that has everything, yet its excess isn’t for the sake of being excessive. This all happened. Well, mostly. While the film has taken some liberties and uses the “inspired by a true story” description, it’s based on the experiences of producer Chris Mallick, a pioneer in the early days of Internet billing.
Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht) didn’t set out to change the world. In their cocaine haze, all they want is a way to make the Internet more fun. Their plan: Add porn to it and charge users a fee. Their problem: There isn’t a way to get people’s credit card information over the Internet. Necessity being the mother of invention, Wayne and Buck write the software that has become the basis for nearly every online credit card transaction. However, they don’t exactly have the business acumen to see this idea through all the way, and find themselves in bed with the Russian mafia in the form of strip club owner Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija). In too deep and too high to know better, they need a problem solver.
Enter Mallick’s celluloid analog Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), a “fix-it” guy running a club in Los Angeles for a friend. Jack realizes that rather than involving themselves in producing content, they can take a fee from every transaction and sit back and cash checks, simply serving as middle men for the content providers. Jack, married with kids, sees the potential to make enough money to set his family up for life and get out of the porn business. But in typical fashion he can’t quite let go before things take a turn for the worse.
While the film follows a familiar rise-and-fall biopic structure, its execution is anything but. Right out of the gate, “Middle Men” bounces around in time and space from the climax to the initial germ of Wayne and Buck’s idea and back again, all at break-neck speed. While the visuals are flying by, even more information is relayed via Jack’s narration, and the film rarely lets up. It’s a testament to “Punk’d” alum Andy Weiss and co-writer/director George Gallo that their script never loses the viewer. Instead it draws you deeper into not only the world, but the way in which they plan to show it to you.
Gallo’s style is assured if not altogether unique, falling somewhere between Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and the energy of a Guy Ritchie film. The visuals are slick and effective, and the film is expertly cut to keep the story flying along at a high-octane pace. Kudos to all involved for the deft handling of what could have been a much more salacious, or even NC-17 rated, story. Despite the amount of porn, porn stars and drugs central to the plot, it never feels seedy or exploitative. There’s a healthy dose of nudity, but it’s more about setting and mood than prurient appeal.
The movie’s marketing paints it as a broad comedy, and while it is at times very funny, that’s not its only goal. Wayne and Buck are essentially cartoon characters, played to the hilt by Ribisi, channeling Hunter S. Thompson, and Macht, bringing his own brand of neurotic intellectual crazy. This might seem out of place given the serious turns the script takes, but they never waver, always allowing the audience to remember that it’s allowed to laugh, even in the film’s darkest moments. There are more dead bodies and more scenes of real tension than would be typical of something this funny.
Those dark moments are what stood out most for me. I didn’t expect to go to the places Gallo takes the film in terms of Jack’s struggles with his own morality and his family life. While the dramatic peaks and valleys may come at the expected times, the road taken is not familiar territory. This is not simply a story about a guy who gets rich and loses himself in the process, but rather it’s about a guy who never realizes he’s losing himself until it’s too late for him to do anything about it. You can trace his fall to the very first moment he realizes how good Wayne and Buck’s software is. We see the wheels turning as Wilson’s character gets what con men call “the itch” that allows them to take advantage of their marks.
Luke Wilson’s Jack is the emotional and intellectual center of the film, and the story’s success hinges largely on his ability to keep us sympathetic to his plight regardless of what the character does. I don’t know if it’s his easy-going Texas charm, the 25 pounds he packed on for the role, or a combination of both, but he pulls it off. Wilson hasn’t spent much time in the world of drama, yet handles it with the same aplomb he brings to his straight-man comedic roles. In a movie big on plot and short on real character exploration, he keeps the ship afloat.
Macht and Ribisi have fantastic chemistry as the two friends who just want to spice up the Internet for fun and profit, and part of this stems from their constant bickering. We’ve all had friendships that seem like they’re more hate than love, and this one is no different. Wayne and Buck serve not only as comic relief, but as a way to propel the plot as if the movie itself is on speed. When they appear less during a middle section of the film, things seem to slow to a relative crawl.
The supporting actors make the most of their roles, with James Caan’s slimeball lawyer and Kevin Pollak’s FBI agent doing their best to steal every scene they’re in. Robert Forster is also typically great in his one scene as Jack’s former employer. Jacinda Barret (married in real life to Macht) plays Jack’s wife, and isn’t given much to do other than nag him. On the other hand there’s Laura Ramsey’s Aubrey Dawns, the porn star with whom Jack becomes smitten, who’s written and portrayed with much more depth. This may have been a conscious decision to increase Aubrey’s allure, but it would have been nice to see the two characters more balanced to properly tug at Jack’s desires.
Terry Crews’ James, bodyguard and longtime friend of Jack’s, suffers the unfortunate fate of becoming a plot point rather than a character. Given how important James’ actions are to a scene that spins the plot in a wildly different direction, the lack of backstory seems like a poor decision. Considering almost all background information is provided via narration, this would have been easy enough for Weiss and Gallo to weave in.
Gallo shows a real flair for this type of material in telling the story of the men who forever changed the face of commerce and the Internet. “Middle Men” is a solid film whose biggest flaw is its own ambition. In trying to keep up with its frantic pace without sacrificing plot, some explanatory details and characters fall by the wayside. This may keep it from reaching the emotional depths Gallo was aiming for with its near-tragic structure, but it’s still an enjoyable, and often very funny, film anchored by strong performances.
“Middle Men” opens today nationwide.