Duffel bags of cash. Dumping bodies at sea. Women as commodities and lots of tits and asses wriggling in his face. It’s just another day at the office for Jack Harris. His story — which is so loosely based on fact, as the multiply caveated disclaimer at the end of Middle Men indicates, that it might as well be fiction — is kinda the reverse of GoodFellas: Ever since he was a kid, Harris never wanted to be a pornographer or to go in business with the Russian mob: it just sort of happened. What’s a fella to do?
Director and cowriter (with Punk’d’s Andy Weiss) George Gallo would clearly like you to be thinking about GoodFellas while trudging through his sporadically satisfying Middle Men, but maybe that’s not such a good idea. If this tale of rags to riches to major felonies has a familiar feel to it, it’s that it feels Scorsese-lite — chimes of Casino ring here, too — telling a similar tale with an appealing if only momentarily diverting panache, but lacking in truly gripping characters to give it any real dramatic heft. Gallo created a couple of astonishingly memorable protagonists in his script for Midnight Run — for which he will forever be a cinema god; damn, but that’s one of the funniest movies ever made — so it’s a bit of a mystery why Harris is so bland and so hard to feel much of anything for here.
The point appears to be that Harris (Luke Wilson: Henry Poole Is Here, Battle for Terra) is conflicted about having to dump bodies in the ocean and be a pornographer and stuff, but that significantly reduces what could have been a sleazy appeal to Middle Men: Harris isn’t enjoying his obscene wealth, or the danger he’s constantly in, or just about anything his work provides him. He’s not even interested in cheating on his wife with all the pulchritude he is surrounded with on a daily basis. He just sort of wanders through his life neither having much fun nor getting too worked up about it, either. Sure, he tells us once in a while that such-and-such is a blast or so-and-so is causing trouble, but we don’t see much of it. And it’s really no fun for us to get such things secondhand.
It was the heady, heady early days of the Internet, like 1996 or so, and a couple of horny idiots (Giovanni Ribisi [Avatar, Public Enemies] and Gabriel Macht [The Spirit, The Good Shepherd]), lamenting the lack of jack-off material online, started uploading porn. Not their own productions, no; it appears they were just scanning images from magazines and selling them to other horny idiots. (The lack of drama overall leaves room to wonder: What about the copyright violations? Didn’t any of the owners of the material object that these two idiots were profiting from their work? The movie never deals with that.) But the important bit is that they invented a way for people to use credit cards to buy stuff in cyberspace, which was a major innovation and set the stage for the Net becoming the world’s biggest shopping mall. Being idiots, they soon got in trouble with the Los Angeles outpost of the Russian mob; having hit on the idea finally of producing their own material, they approached the boss, Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija: The Eye, Battle in Seattle), with an offer to photograph and videotape the strippers working in his club, and they’d split the money. (No word on whether the strippers got cut into any of the enormous profits the venture generated. I’m guessing not.) Soon enough they’ve run afoul of Sokoloff, which is where “fixer” Harris comes in… and things go from bad to worse for everyone.
I don’t think we can blame Wilson for Harris being so uninvolving. Yes, it’s true that he’s probably too likable, too lacking in the inherent sharkiness to convince us he’s capable of some of the things he ends up doing here. But the actor is also burdened with a script that keeps insisting Harris doesn’t want to be doing the things he’s doing, without ever showing us how Harris gets suckered in. He’s supposed to be a man who isn’t drawn in by excess riches — the ordinary kind are realistically appealing to him — or by the easy availability of free sex surrounding him constantly. But even with the plot necessity of a hold over him that keeps him in the business, we can’t ever feel sorry for him, either, for eventually getting in deeper than he ever wanted, which appears to be the direction we’re driven in.