REVIEW: Zesty Porn-Pioneer Saga Middle Men Loses the Plot

Movieline Score:
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"Let's focus on why we're here," is the refrain Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) uses to soothe a parade of thugs in Middle Men. Jack is half conflict-resolution consultant, half cleaner, and the only thing he'll admit to doing all the way is the job at hand, which involves fixing broken -- and usually shady -- deals. If it were just a little bit more fun watching this Internet-age crime caper, Jack's smooth-operator refrain might have become a sort of mordant catchphrase. Instead it's a grim reminder of the narrative incoherence that drags this well-acted and often lively movie down.

Director and co-writer (with Andy Weiss) George Gallo apparently couldn't decide when to begin the story of Jack Harris's brush with dot-com infamy, so he starts it four or five times. First in 2004, at the end of a dark road he has been on -- one that apparently led to hustling a bag of money into his car and speeding out of the driveway. Then we're back in 1998, when he proposed to his Texas cliché of a wife (Jacinda Barrett) and they began their Norman Rockwell life. Then there is a further hop back to 1997, when two over-achievers on the skids came up with the idea that turned the Internet into the money-making machine it has been ever since.

Things get somewhat settled when the two main parties finally meet, but narrative equilibrium is never quite established. It's clear that with the structure and over-active camera work, Gallo is going for a stylish edge, hoping to create a pleasurable sense of tension and unease that will galvanize a crazy story into a singular film. But there are too many unfocused, undistinguished elements in play -- including the momentum-sapping undertow created by the overbearing narration -- to pull off a strategy that relies foremost on a coherent vision and voice.

The two burnouts are Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck (Gabriel Macht); the former is really into porn and money, the latter is able to write the first credit card payment program made available on the Internet. Together they make a lot of money in a short time (in a memorable sequence each new purchase is coded to make a taste-specific sound on Wayne's computer, with bells signaling boob-centric porn and whistles indicating something more hardcore; soon their living room sounds like a midway) and blow it with even greater haste. Their fatal error -- and there are fatal errors to beat the band in this somewhat true story -- is shacking up with a Russian mobster named Nikita Sokolov (Rade Sherbedgia). When Nikita's half of the draw comes up short, Jack is called in -- by a shady lawyer played with eminent sleaze by James Caan -- to make it all better.

Which he does, and then some. Recognizing an ingenious scheme when he sees it, Jack brings a magic bullet to the sale of Internet porn: Make it anonymous. Hypocrisy is of course what makes the world and much of its money go around, as Jack points out whenever someone questions his new line of work, which is keeping him in Los Angeles and away from home for months at a time. Every hotel and every cable operator sells pornography, he says, and besides, he's just the middle man, the money collector.

There's so much story going on in Middle Men that there's little time left for things like ideas, or a cogent articulation of Jack's moral and personal struggle. The hyperbolic, Debbie Downer tone of much of the narration makes it feel in some way as if he's working the audience the same way he might his clients. "How the hell did I let things go so far?" he asks. "Not that long ago, things seemed so simple."

Wilson's unflappable, deeply sympathetic affect and aging golden-boy visage have a very Jack-like smoothing effect on the story's rough patches. But to no avail: Almost every one of the scenes, which veer broadly from subplot to subplot (my favorite is the one involving Jack's mistress, a porn starlet played by Laura Ramsey, and the break-up of an international terrorism ring) begin with a banal variation on "What happened next, you won't believe." Actually, Jack, you'd be surprised. I kept wishing that Gallo and Wilson would stop telling me how things went and try me instead.



Comments

  • stolidog says:

    sorry, but this review was as choppy as the movie it purports to critique. I don't think your heart was in it.

  • Gideon says:

    I've seen it. Big flaming turd. Too long, too tame, too uninteresting.

  • Feet of Courier says:

    Michelle, I thank God that you reviewed this. Not that I have anything against you personally, because it is chore of a movie, but because I couldn't handle another "8.5, this is a great summer movie" review by StephieZ of something that is pure drivel.

  • john dale says:

    Nah, michelle and stephie z...you are definitely missing something. I saw this film 2 days ago and it was pretty terrific...The fact that it keeps bouncing around and is kinda chaotic is part of it's charm...The constant events that seem to pile on Jack as he sinks deeper into the biz are wryly comic and make the film totally fresh. i would give this an 8.

  • DingoAteTheBaby says:

    "The constant events that seem to pile on Jack as he sinks deeper into the biz are wryly comic and make the film totally fresh"?
    I guess, if you've never seen a movie before. For the rest of us this was a seriously hacky effort.

  • I just adore my new Kirby vacuum cleaner and shampooer. It certainly blows whenever your cats leave little poopees all throughout the house for you ;-)

  • IF this movie interested you, G00gle "J C Mallick" or "Oxymoron Entertainment" for move info on "Jack harris".

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