by Richard von Busack
The worst creeps are the most self-righteous ones, and the creepy Middle Men specializes in justifications. In the ee cummings phrase, it stinks of excuse. As he rigorously emulates the Goodfellas flash forward, reverse and sidebars, writer/director George Gallo (Homeland Security) follows the decline of innocent Houston family man Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) over the course of a decade.
The poor man is lured into a pit of sleazeburgers in the LA porn industry. It’s the 1990s; Harris is such an innocent that’s he’s even introduced surrounded with platters of corn on the cob, on the day when he meets his wife at a church picnic.
He considers himself a kind of fixer, a person who facilitates deals. Jack flies out to LA to help out a friend with a business problem at a nightclub. That’s when he gets involved with a pair of coked out Los Angeles computer geeks, Wayne and Buck (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht), profane slobs who squabble with each other. While horsing around, two stumble across the idea of uploading porn to the internet and making people pay for it.
Jack’s addition to their scheme—third-party billing—makes them all very rich. One beneficiary if the wealth is a no-good Vegas lawyer (James Caan, doing an odd Dustin Hoffman imitation).
The geeks needed to get their models somewhere, and they recruited the girls from the nightclub of a Russian mobster, played by Rade Serbedija.
When the Russian’s relative is accidentally killed by Jack’s associate during the course of a meeting, matters get worse. Because of his guilt over the murder, Jack is susceptible to the appeal of Audrey Dawn, a blonde porn star (Laura Ramsey). Jack leaves his wife and family for the troubled girl and gets deeper into the smut business.
That’s a twist Middle Men could have used: what if Jack had been an untrustworthy narrator? As a character, Jack Harris is too good to be true, and Wilson’s pokey, resigned nice guy performance doesn’t give him any extra dimension. It happens often that producers will make a movie and suddenly be struck with nervousness for the subject matter. That’s the way you always hear it during the interviews: “This isn’t a movie about pedophilia, it’s a movie about a man’s struggle with himself… etc etc.”
In the case of Middle Men, the producers have thorough distaste for the porn people and the masturbators who consume porn: they’re presented as goggling creeps, or yokels dropping their overalls. Remember that Baudelaire quote about how sex is the lyricism of the masses? You’ll find nothing lyrical in Middle Men.
Gallo overdid the balancing act by making Jack so naive: how could a man as relentlessly square as Jack get involved with any kind of nocturnal business, starting with an LA nightclub? His narration explains it all for you: “It’s like I was living two lives.” And that’s not the only time the narration cuts it and dries it just like that; moreover, Jack’s character is so flat it doesn’t even look like he’s living one life.
The Australian actress Jacinda Barrett, playing Jack’s wife, seems to be parodying the middle-American hausfrau. I’ve seen frozen dinner commercials where the wife looked more hipsterish; but we’re meant to understand Harris as a family guy smart enough to get himself out of trouble. We’re also meant to care about the kind of life he’s trying to have, with a private school for his kids and a gated driveway. This all-important home comes undersiege when the gangsters attack, in a bit that’s a bad parody of Kurosawa’s High and Low.
Middle Men doesn’t make the world of porn look visually alluring, either, despite the yogaish poses Ramsey gets put into. The porn parties Gallo trucks his cameras through are a sea of fake boobs and pimp mustaches. Gallo leers and condemns at the same time, and the movie is sold as something red hot to R-rated audiences praying for genuine erotica. I suppose defrauding such an audience is something the filmmakers would feel proud about.