Middle Men

'Boogie Nights' meets 'Goodfellas' in 'Middle Men,' pic is a sleazy but undeniably intriguing tour.

Jack Harris - Luke Wilson Wayne Beering - Giovanni Ribisi Buck Dolby - Gabriel Macht Diana Harris - Jacinda Barrett Audrey Dawns - Laura Ramsey James - Terry Crews Nikita Sokoloff - Rade Serbedzija Curt Allmans - Kevin Pollak Jerry Haggerty - James Caan Ivan - Graham McTavish Denny Z - Jason Antoon Louie La La - Robert Forster

“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.

Middle Men

Production: A Paramount release of a Mallick Media presentation of an Oxymoron Entertainment production in association with Blue Star Entertainment. Produced by Christopher Mallick, William Sherak, Jason Shuman, Michael Weiss. Co-producer, Nate Blonde, Co-executive producers, Daniel S. Frisch, Shaliza Somani, Andy Weiss. Directed by George Gallo. Screenplay, Gallo, Andy Weiss.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Lukas Ettlin; editor, Malcolm Campbell; music, Brian Tyler; music supervisor, Tricia Holloway; production designer, Bob Ziembicki; art director, Douglas Cumming; set decorator, Bob Kensinger; costume designer, Sharen Davis; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Michael B. Koff; supervising sound editors, Allan Fung, Mark Gingras; re-recording mixers, Keith Elliott, Brad Thornton, Mark Zsifkovits; assistant director, Marty Eli Schwartz. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (closer), Feb. 14, 2010. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

Cast: Jack Harris - Luke Wilson Wayne Beering - Giovanni Ribisi Buck Dolby - Gabriel Macht Diana Harris - Jacinda Barrett Audrey Dawns - Laura Ramsey James - Terry Crews Nikita Sokoloff - Rade Serbedzija Curt Allmans - Kevin Pollak Jerry Haggerty - James Caan Ivan - Graham McTavish Denny Z - Jason Antoon Louie La La - Robert Forster

More Scene

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

  • Dwayne Johnson Idris Elba

    Dwayne Johnson: Idris Elba Nixed 'Black James Bond' Joke in 'Hobbs & Shaw'

    In the “Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw,” the movie’s villain Brixton, played by Idris Elba, spreads his arms out wide and declares “I’m black Superman.” It turns out that might not have been the original line. Dwayne Johnson tells Variety that Elba was first asked to proclaim he’s “black James Bond,” but the [...]

  • Matteo BocelliAmerican Icon Awards Gala, Inside,

    Top Music Manager Calls Out American Icon Awards for Failing to Pay Talent

    The centuries-old adage no good deed goes unpunished is a common refrain for star music manager Scott Rodger of late. Rodger, who represents Paul McCartney and Andrea Bocelli at Maverick, says his client Matteo Bocelli, the son of the opera star, was stiffed out of promised expense reimbursement by the American Icon Awards. The event, [...]

  • Mary Bailey Steve D'Angelo, Jim Belushi

    Cannabis Industry Tackles Justice Reform With 'Last Prisoner Project'

    Jim Belushi is standing two feet away in the backyard of his spacious Brentwood home, honking a harp like he’s a Blues Brother back in sweet home Chicago accompanied by noted reggae band Rebelution’s Eric Rachmany and Kyle Ahern, who provide a 12-bar shuffle. There’s the sweet smell of skunk — and success — hanging [...]

  • Dwayne Wade holds up the legend

    Dwyane Wade, Megan Rapinoe Win Big at 2019 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards

    The 2019 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Sports Awards was filled with incredible athletes, inspiring moments and — of course — a massive amount of slime. “I love the kids. I love the slime. I loved the games. I love seeing celebrities and athletes like become kids again. And it’s like my favorite thing,” Michael Strahan told [...]

  • Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani

    Dave Bautista Talks Representation in Hollywood and Defying Stereotypes with 'Stuber'

    Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani make an unlikely duo in “Stuber,” an R-rated comedy about a police officer and his Uber driver. But the two connected over the rare chance to star in the film as actors of Asian descent (Baustia is half-Filipino and Nanjiani is Pakistani). “I’ve been stereotyped for a couple different reasons [...]

  • Skin

    How Jamie Bell Transformed Into a Neo-Nazi for 'Skin'

    Anyone who still associates British actor Jamie Bell with his breakout role as a young boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer will quickly forget all about “Billy Elliot” after seeing “Skin,” which screened at ArcLight Hollywood on Thursday night. “I was shocked,” the film’s writer-director, Guy Nattiv, told Variety of his leading man’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content