“Boogie Nights” meets “Goodfellas” in “Middle Men,” a relentlessly sleazy but undeniably intriguing tour of the bottom-feeding netherworld where porn and organized crime do their mutual bump-and-grind. Unabashedly genuflecting to Martin Scorsese as he pushes a whole lot of stuff in your face you’d perhaps rather not have within inhaling distance, “Midnight Run” writer George Gallo applies considerable narrative skill and reasonable cinematic flair to an insanely intricate tale of men who can’t resist giving in to their basest instincts. A more heavyweight cast would have helped Paramount push over this immorality tale with audiences not necessarily disposed toward fare that will make them want to take a shower immediately after seeing it. Distrib will release the film this year, but a date has not yet been determined.
Worthy of being double billed one day with “The Informant!” due to the remarkable extent of the protag’s self-denial about what he’s really up to, “Middle Men” is a whopper of an “inspired by true events” story about a legit Texas businessman who somehow imagines he remains morally uncontaminated by his surroundings while mixing it up with porn stars, Internet scam artists, Russian mobsters, Vegas wheeler-dealers, FBI agents, corrupt politicians and assorted scumbags — all while pretending to maintain a proper, if distant, family life back home. And he’s the so-called good guy with whom you’re supposed to identify.
At the very least, Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) is the guide who, via reams of voiceover narration that give Ray Liotta’s running commentary in “Goodfellas” a run for its money, provides an ongoing road map through the dizzying maze of sordid events and personalities that populate this lower-middle range of earthly hell.
Pic defines its area of interest early on with a sequence the likes of which has assuredly never been seen before in a Hollywood studio feature — a masturbation montage. The point of this unique interlude is to illustrate a commercial niche unfilled as of 1997: “something to jerk off to over the Internet.” That need is willingly met by two slime-buckets entirely lacking in principles, Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht). Initially grabbing porn straight from magazines and posting it on their site, the grubby former veterinarian and NASA technician, respectively, see the subscriptions start rolling in, which means they can now afford more and better drugs.
Jack provides the boys with guidance as to how they can much more dramatically increase their income, but with millions come associations with people ready to rip you off at best and do you bodily harm at worst. Old-school Vegas lawyer and dealmaker Jerry Haggerty (James Caan) is always happy to help but then never lets you forget your debt to him, while much more direct is Russian crime boss Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija), who’s got a threat for every occasion.
The cast is rich with colorful lowlifes and no-goods, and Wayne and Buck’s complete whacked-outness and acts of utter stupidity become increasingly mind-blowing the more successful they become. They need Jack’s help to get them out of their frequent scrapes, and that’s where Jack’s genius shows itself; the man is a master diplomat and calculator who can negotiate a deal from which everyone goes home happy even in the most extreme circumstances.
Jack keeps a legal distance from his partners’ porn activities by officially running only their billing operations, and rationalizes it professionally by insisting he’s no more involved in the sex business than are respectable hotels that offer it to guests on in-room TV. Still, he scarcely sees his wife (Jacinda Barrett) and growing son because he’s running a glitzy nightclub, becoming far too involved with porn star Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey) and ultimately getting into hot water with Nikita.
Gallo shows again that he can write funny, vulgar dialogue, and he moves the action along with reasonable verve and, given the complicated story, admirable coherence. Where the film doesn’t connect as it needs to is with Jack’s character. In a tale full of operators, Jack is the king, but as written and in Wilson’s performance, one doesn’t really see him operating; there’s nothing going on in the actor’s eyes. As a result, Jack is pretty bland, a seemingly ordinary guy with an expertise that seems to come out of nowhere. It would have been much more interesting to see him as a confident high-stakes gambler who always believes he can out-finesse the other guy.
Macht similarly declines to take his character, a formerly straight-arrow aspiring-astronaut type, to the limit, leaving it to Ribisi to steal the show as a certifiable maniac and confrontationalist who really doesn’t know what he’s saying most of the time. Serbedzija gives his Godfather-like figure some human traits but is downright scary when he wants to be, which is much of the time.
Sharp around the edges but rather soft at its core, “Middle Men” sports snazzy production values and an expensive soundtrack of, again a la Scorsese, a wide assortment of popular tunes.