Friday, August 6, 2010
Movie review: Middle Men
Lackluster storytelling approach turns potentially interesting material into something less than thrilling.
The story behind Middle Men could have made for a compelling cinematic tale of greed and temptation gone hypertext. But in the hands of director/co-scripter George Gallo (Homeland Security), it ends up being an exercise in narrative mediocrity.
That's not to say there's nothing fun about this fictionalized chronicle of the breakthrough internet application that allowed people to pay for stuff securely (and anonymously!) online. In fact, it's a hoot watching odd couple Giovanni Ribisi (as the slovenly Wayne) and Gabriel Macht (as neatnick Buck) in the process of figuring out how they're going to make their fortunes out in La La Land.
Once they come up with their breakthrough idea (the prototype for pay portals), their first go at making it profitable proves marginally successful: they post a bunch of pornographic photos to a website and allow viewers to access them after paying, via credit card, through their safe, secure, easy-access interface. (Specific computer sound effects indicate which variety of visual aids their online buyers are opting for: a bell for boobs, a whistle for booty -- that sort of thing.)
But they soon run into the problem of coming up with fresh (ahem) content, and so become entangled with a Russian mobster who runs a topless bar -- and a lot of other enterprises beneath that sleazy but entirely legal surface. Buck and Wayne have a ball photographing the girls who work at the club run by Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija), producing just the sort of raw material that wankers of all stripes (well, MOST stripes anyway) are willing to pay for. But they're missing the bigger picture.
Enter Houston business strategist Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), who's put into contact with Buck and Wayne through their lawyer, Jerry Haggerty (James Caan, predictably and convincingly cutthroat). Jack is a family man, whose wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett) will be dumbfounded when she eventually learns that her straight-arrow husband is in bed with pornographers. But it's thanks to Jack's business vision that the pay portal enterprise winds up making Buck and Wayne (and Sokoloff, and Jack -- and, by extension, Diana) rich beyond their wildest dreams. If only they can avoid killing each other...
Somehow, with millions rolling in and access to the most beautiful and accessible women imaginable, Jack finds a way to stay above the fray and retain his business demeanor. Hey, someone has to do it, and it's sure not shaping up to be Buck or Wayne, who unhesitatingly embrace the morally bankrupt, fiscally over-endowed lifestyle of sex industry gazillionaires. To them, their success means blow for everyone, with "everyone" being the plethora of women who hang around the penthouse to share their blow. Oh, and lots of vodka, perhaps in deference to their increasingly demanding business partner, Sokoloff.
But Jack can stay virtuous for only so long: He's not superhuman, and when he's introduced to internet solo performer Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey), it's all over but the counting (of assets for his divorce settlement). Audrey, in addition to being a stunningly attractive 23-year-old porn star, is something of an out-of-the-closet philosopher, along the lines of Chelsea in The Girlfriend Experience, or Moon in This Girl's Life. In other words, she considers herself above the fray. Like Jack, who she takes for a kindred spirit.
In the grand tradition of "how are the mighty fallen," this financial fortress built on sex and self-indulgence ends up being dragged down both from within and without -- but not before Jack does a good deed for the feds, who use his connections to track down (and then take down) some chicken-choking terrorists in the Middle East.
Burdened with a surfeit of exposition (in the form of voice-over narration supplied by Wilson's character) and a dearth of nuance, Middle Men plays out more like a naughtily-illustrated history lesson than an entertainment.
Or maybe it's more of a confession.
GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY: "Don't worry about it - we're rich." - Buck, re. Jack getting all the limelight at an AVN function
"Yeah - rich and somebody's bitch." - Wayne
HE MEANS BUSINESS: "I'm just a businessman." - Jack
"Aren't we all?" - Sokoloff