Middle Men

Middle Men Middle Men Middle Men Middle Men Middle Men

Thematically riveting but unevenly executed, George Gallo’s “Middle Men" is an intentionally rude and gross chronicle of the early days of Internet Porn. 

 
The movie claims to be based on true events, inspired by producer Christopher Mallick's own experiences from the late 1990s through the early 2000s, when he was part of the burgeoning Internet. However, more than anything else, “Middle Men” is made in the vein of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights," about the porn industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s (before the VCR Revolution), albeit without the latter’s savviness, verve, and charm.
 
“Middle Men,” which has played in a number of festivals (it was closing night of the Santa Barbara Film Fest, in February), will be released theatrically by Paramount on August 6. It’s been a while since such an outré feature, in foul language, graphics (masturbation included), and sordid themes, has come out of the studio system, though it was not made by Paramount.
 
The original plan was to create a TV series with HBO, which makes sense in the wake of series like “Hung.” Later, producer Christopher Mallick worked closely with Weiss and Gallo as they rewrote the TV series pilot idea into a feature film.
 
In its gritty, unabashedly in-your-face style, “Middle Men” is a film of the 1990s, and more striking and audacious in subject matter than in directorial treatment or acting quality (more about it later). Overall, George Gallo, who has written “Midnight Run,” “Bad Boys,” and other features, acquits himself more honorably as a storyteller than as a skillful filmmaker (though he had made some pictures before).
 
It’s too bad that the cast, headed by Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Gabriel Macht, is not of a higher-caliber for it would have elevated “Middle Men” to another level, bringing it closer to Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” Scorsese’s “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” and Robert Altman’s “The Player,” all of which are films about undeniably glamorous but also ethically dubious enterprises, defined by their own subcultures and code (or lack of) of ethics.
 
Though Gallo and his co-writer Andy Weiss opt for a “Rashomon-like storytelling, with multiple perspectives and commentative narration, “Middle Men” lacks detachment (the filmmakers are too close to their material) and emotional involvement. You really do not identify with (or like) any of the characters, the way you felt for all the figures, good and bad, in “Boogie Nights,” “Casino,” and “The Player.”
 
Even so, “Middle Men” has an intriguing, little known (to the lay public) story, sort of a rags-to-riches, immoral version of the American Dream of quick fame and financial success by ordinary guys.
 
The tale begins with a voice-over narration by Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), a legit Texas businessman who serves as the guide of a rather complicated, often amazing story, defined by a series of sordid events, most of which unanticipated.
 
Jack’s life changes upon meeting two drug-addicted amateurs, motivated by their basic instincts (literally) rather than smarts: Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi), a former veterinarian, and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht), an ex-NASA technician. Acting as a mentor-consultant, Jack offers the men advice about how to market and commercialize their basest and basic instincts.
 
The duo begins by posting porn on their personal websites. Soon, their visitors increase in numbers, and subscriptions go up, affording them a more luxurious lifestyle of sex, music, and above all drugs. The new industry obviously serves some needs, filling a market niche in the late 1990s. 
 
In his wheelings and dealings, Jack interacts with a colorful gallery of individuals: sexy porn stars, Internet scam artists, Russian mobsters, Vegas entrepreneurs, FBI agents, corrupt politicians and other low-lifes. (I can’t think of another recent film that places so many scumbags in one tale).
 
However, the more successful the business is, the more of a target it becomes to other dubious and greedy personalities, prime among whom is vet Las Vegas lawyer and dealmaker Jerry Haggerty (James Caan, as always excellent), who’s willing to offers help for all kinds of rewards in return. Dealings with gangster-like figures come next, here represented by the scary Russian crime boss Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija).
 
Only in America: Wayne and Buck's lack of savviness (at times sheer stupidity or just madness) contrasts with their phenomenally successful scheme. When needing help, they turn to Jack, a skillful negotiator and manipulator, who would use any means (diplomatic and otherwise) to accomplish his goals.
 
Jack keeps a legal distance from his partners' porn activities by officially managing only their billing operations. He rationalizes his professional involvement by claiming that he's no more engaged in the sex business than are respectable hotels, which offer their guests TV adult entertainment (for pay). Given the same opportunity, the film implies, most people would make the same decisions that Jack and his entourage made.
 
Lacking self-awareness of who he is, Jack pretends that his other life, that of a normal, married man, is more important. However, managing a nightclub, Jack has not time for his wife (Jacinda Barrett) or son, not to mention the fact that he’s romantically involved with porn star Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey).
 
The story of “Middle Men” is obviously fictionalized for dramatic reasons: Some of the characters stand for real (specific) people, while others are composites of various people.  But it reveals fascinating facts about how one’s life is radically changed when the Internet began as a new means of commerce. “Middle Men” depicts an industry that grew faster than anyone could have ever imagined.
Gallo shows considerable skills at writing credible dialogue that’s both fluent and vulgar.   He is particularly adept at showing the chaos that reigned in the early Internet days–the “Wild Wild West” electronically, as one person describes it in the story. There were no regulations, not even informal norms of how to conduct business; rules were made up as they went along. The main reward, but not the only one, was monetary—a lot of money (tax-free) was involved in these operations, falling onto the hands of guys who could not have fantasized about it in their wildest and wettest dreams.
The film’s title is apt, based on the notion that the heroes are ordinary guys, hidden behind-the scenes, whom you seldom see or hear about in the Internet business.  The movie focuses on an odd trio of partners in a business that few admit even existed. The story unfolds as a wild ride about adult entertainment the same way that “Wall Street” was about the greedy personalities of the stockbrokers and about buying and selling stocks.  The saga takes “normal” people and throws them in an environment that’s circus-like, anything but normal.
Indeed, there is always chaos around Jack, but he's the calm in the storm, the man who tries and often succeeds in makings sense of it all. Jack is the nominal hero, but as played by Luke Wilson, an amiable actor, he is too bland, too nice, too low-keyed, lacking the chutzpah that’s expected out of a master operator (a macher) and a schmuck who takes the risks of a major gambler
 Macht, playing a former aspiring-astronaut type, is decent but no more. In a flashy role, Ribisi is great as a motor mouth maniac, who may or may not realize what he is saying or what he is doing.
James Caan (who, incidentally, appeared in Luke Wilson's first film as an actor, “Bottle Rocket”) shines as the crooked lawyer Jerry Haggerty, the baddest of a bunch of bad boys. Kevin Pollak does well with his small part as FBI Agent Curt Allmans.
There are also good cameo appearances by Robert Forster as Louie La La, a Chicago wise guy who mentors Jack during his younger days, Kelsey Grammer as Frank Griffin, the District Attorney who suspects Jack of foul play in running his Internet billing business, and Jason Antoon as Denny Z, a nefarious adult entertainment producer.
Like “Boogie Nights,” "Middle Men" boasts a lively soundtrack of the era’s popular tunes. The production shot in and around Phoenix, Arizona, and in Las Vegas, mostly at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

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
 
Credits
 
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.
Camera, 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, Michael B. Koff; supervising sound editors, Allan Fung, Mark Gingras; re-recording mixers, Keith Elliott, Brad Thornton, Mark Zsifkovits. Assistant director, Marty Eli Schwartz.
 
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 100 Minutes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

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