Middle Men" wants to be Boogie Nights for the Internet. Two crucial problems: Writer-director George Gallo isn't nearly the storyteller that Paul Thomas Anderson is. And this film stars Luke Wilson, one of the more inexplicable film stars of the past decade and a half.
Where Boogie Nights looked at the rise of porn in the 1980s, Middle Men wants to tell the story of how porn took over the Internet from 1997 on. It did it, according to this "inspired by a true story" script, by figuring out how to let people buy hard-core porn online -- photos and then movies -- using a credit card, while disguising the purchases behind innocuous billing names.
The person telling this story is a Houston family man named Jack Harris. He's played by Wilson, who isn't even convincing as himself, when he's selling cell phones on TV. Wilson plays essentially the same character in every movie he's in, no matter what he's actually supposed to be embodying. He delivers all of his lines in the same way and has the expressiveness of a tree stump.
Jack Harris is a married businessman in Houston who has a particular skill at taking failing businesses, identifying their flaws and turning them around. Though he lives in Houston, he makes his fortune in L.A., where he transforms a failing bar into a hot nightclub. He even has a set of black bodyguards.
He's approached by a shifty attorney (James Caan) to help out another pair of struggling businessmen: a rocket scientist (Gabriel Macht) and a veterinarian (Giovanni Ribisi), who have figured out how to let people charge porn with credit cards on the Internet. The pair, named Buck and Wayne, are also major-league cokeheads -- and are in deep doo-doo with the Russian mob, led by Nikita (Rade Serbedzija).
So Jack figures out how to change the duo's business from producing pornography for the web to simply serving as the conduit for the payments; they take a percentage of each purchase, creating what looks like a forerunner of PayPal. Before Jack knows it, he's involved in a $100-million business.
But he's still involved with this pair of bozos. As played by Macht and Ribisi, it's like being in business with Daffy Duck times two -- and Daffy has a serious cocaine addiction. And they've all been accessories to the accidental death of one of Nikita's henchmen, whose body they disposed of in the Pacific.
So how smart can Jack really be? The script would have us believe that he's ruthless enough to dump a body in the ocean without a second thought -- but it wants him to be redeemable so he's not ruthless enough to cut his losses with partners he knows will be his undoing.
And that's the problem with Middle Men: Jack is played as a realistic (if dull) guy who leaves his wife for a porn star; that you can believe. But he's in business with a pair of yo-yos out of some alternative Looney Tune cartoon, one with porn stars, blow and gangsters.