Putting porn on the Internet was a no-brainer: Masturbating millions wanted the stuff and were eager to pay for their solitary pleasures. The problem was how to separate these lonely souls from their money digitally.
According to "Middle Men," a new movie "inspired by a true story," this problem was solved by Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht), two over-wound young L.A. hustlers who in 1997 created a computer program to enable online credit-card payments, and then, in a further refinement, hatched the idea of anonymous billing, so that instead of your wife or whoever coming across a credit-card charge from, say, "Milf Wagon Productions," all she would see would be a payment to, say, "24/7 Billing Company." This allowed Wayne and Buck to operate, not as actual pornographers, but as blameless middlemen between the skin trade's suppliers and consumers. Brilliant.
The story is approximately derived from the experiences of Christopher Mallick, one of the film's producers. Back in the wild '90s, Mallick was an executive with the online billing outfit Paycom, and if "Middle Men" is any indication of the adventures he truly endured, it's something of a surprise that he's still alive.
Having set up their fledgling porn site and billing operation, Wayne and Buck (both fictitious characters) settle back to wait for customers. Their wait is brief — money comes gushing in immediately. Soon they're making $25,000 a day, and before long, much, much more. Unfortunately, enveloped as they are in a haze of booze, cocaine and VHS porn tapes, they have no capacity for conducting business. After deciding to produce their own porn for uploading, and visiting a big strip club to recruit performers, they find themselves in the crosshairs of a Russian mobster named Nikita (Rade Serbedzija). He agrees to supply the girls, but he wants 25 percent of the profits. Wayne and Buck realize they're in over their heads. Fortunately, a skeezy lawyer named Haggerty (James Caan) connects them with a real businessman, a mild-mannered fixer named Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), who specializes in bailing out troubled companies. Jack is a straight arrow with a wife and kids and a beautiful home in Houston. But he immediately sees the lucrative possibilities in setting up Wayne and Buck — and himself — as porn-world middlemen. It's just another business, he figures, and he's confident he won't get sucked down into the slime.
He's wrong, of course — it wouldn't be much of a movie if he weren't. But there's also an interesting twist. Following an accidental death that puts the Russian mobsters in an even surlier mood than usual ("I kill you, your family, people you haven't met yet," says Nikita), Jack is approached by Curt Allmans (Kevin Pollak), an agent with the FBI's Organized Crime Task Force. Surprisingly, Allmans has no interest in rocking Jack's porn boat; in fact, he wants him to keep chugging along. Because it turns out that among the millions of porn hounds logging onto Wayne and Buck's proliferating sites are Arab terrorists ("They're men," Allmans says, by way of unnecessary explanation), and as soon as they make that fatal mouse-click, the U.S. military can target and terminate them.
This is very funny, as is much of the rest of the movie. The director, George Gallo, embraces the gamey porn scene with gusto: There's oodles of nudity, of course (and lots of over-inflated breastage), and Gallo draws savory performances Ribisi (who's a wired wonder in several scenes) and Laura Ramsey, who plays a young pornstar with no regrets (yet, anyway). And casting Caan as the lowlife lawyer was a good call — his Haggerty suggests the urgent need for a bath even if you've just recently had one. It's too bad that Wilson, who's not an especially expressive actor, can't really hold the movie together. He anchors it with his earnest solidity, but he doesn't deliver the frazzled intensity that Jack's descent into the porn maelstrom would seem to call for. You might expect the character to be more buzzed by his exotic new surroundings; Wilson just seems morose.
It's a lively movie, though, with just the right acrid tang. In the end, Jack finds himself facing a very bad federal rap that can't be dodged, however helpful he's been to the FBI. He thought that being a middleman in the porn trade would isolate him from the sleaze, lift him above it. Instead, it just left him stuck in the middle.
("Middle Men" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Other Guys," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Middle Men."
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