Review: Middle Men
Plot: All around family man and problem solver Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) finds himself caught in a decade long spiral when an old associate (James Caan) asks him to assist two drug addicted entrepreneurs (Giovanni Ribisi & Gabriel Macht). The idea: selling porn on the internet and collecting entirely through cyberspace. As their multi-million dollar venture expand, so follows Jack’s troubles by way of the Russian mob, the federal government, porn starlets, international terrorist, con men and his own conscience.
Review: It’s difficult to remember life before an unconscionable amount of pictures and videos of people having sex weren’t readily available at our fingertips. It’s a fascination as natural as our own bodies. For as long as people have been able perform the act, there has always been an audience to watch it. If you told a younger, newly pubescent version of me that the internet was invented for porn, I’d probably believe you. That’s why it’s easy to believe George Gallo’s saga that the birth of cyber credit card transactions, a modern internet ritual, came from the need to watch people screw. While I wasn’t expecting a reflection of actual events, this is only an “inspired by actual events” movie after all, I was fully ready to invest in the possibility that porn led to such an innovative daily business custom. By the time the credits rolled, I didn’t even care if it were true. I just wanted to leave.
So what went wrong? This is fascinating material here, true or not. As a character study alone you had me sold, not just in those early capitalistic engineers of internet porn but in Luke Wilson’s self proclaimed ‘Winstone Wolf’ protagonist bent on finding reasonable resolutions to any given dilemma. Add to that they throw in scantily dressed ladies, a pissed off Russian mob, terrorism, feds and a dozen excellent (if not obvious) pop tunes pulled right off the Scorsese shelf to color the canvas. Unfortunately none of this otherwise pulpy icing could save the film from a screenplay so mannered and contrived that taking out expositionary dialogue would render the running time to fifteen minutes.
From the first frame we follow Luke Wilson’s character Jack Harris and are accompanied by his voice over narration for the better part of every scene, even the scenes he wasn’t or isn’t present in. I usually love these. This is classic untrustworthy narrator territory and it’s still ripe for the taking. It’s obvious five minutes in that Gallo’s storytelling, pacing and visual influences come from GOODFELLAS and there is absolutely no shame in that, in fact there is a moment I couldn’t help but assume was a direct tip of the hat- at one point we cut to a low shot of sharply dressed mobsters leaning against a car at an airport while a plane flies overhead to a title card reading “FIVE YEARS LATER”. That’s all well and good. But the untrustworthy narrator in its definition requires both character and style- of which there is sadly not much to be found here. While the voice over to Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS and CASINO were colorful, adding layers and nuance to the imagery and performances on the screen, the narration in MIDDLE MEN supplies nothing more than the broadest strokes of simple exposition. It’s especially upsetting because I think Luke Wilson is really quite good here, it’s undeniable that he has a strong screen presence and it’s a shame that they overshadow it with continuous voice over banter the likes of which I can only compare to a DVD commentary reading of the accompanying spark-notes. If Luke Wilson’s monotone never-ending voice over was half as compelling as they must think it is than I would have upgraded my Verizon plan months ago.
Sleazy supporting characters are a dime a dozen in MIDDLE MEN, so much so that the characters unfortunately almost become interchangeable. It's unfortunate in that you have a hell of an assorted cast of character actors billed. Talent like James Caan, Robert Forster, Jason Antoon, Kevin Pollak, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer and Rade Sebedzija. It’s a shame that when guys like these aren’t hastily passing in and out of the screen during montages of exposition, they are reduced to just delivering exposition themselves. For my money the most entertaining and worth wild performances in the film belong to Giavani Ribisi and Gabriel Macht, Ribisi seemingly being the one having the most fun with the material he’s given. He displays a lot of comedic bits early on before he and his partner make their fortune, but sadly he doesn’t evolve to anything more than the gag he is introduced as, despite being one of the main characters.
There is material here for a good, entertaining, all around better movie, but in the end it didn’t feel as if writer/director George Gallo and screenwriter Andy Wiess trusted all the simple opportunities they had in front of them. There are a few set pieces in the second half that are genuinely inventive and humorous, true or not, who cares? They could have worked if they allowed the characters to explore each situation. I wish they actually paced them out a bit and gave the film a moment to breath. Unfortunately every innovative and new set piece is as fleeting and passive as the last, held together by rigid voice over. At 100 minutes MIDDLE MEN has the brevity but lacks the wit.