The idea is so simple it's like you could have thought of it yourself: using a credit card to purchase something over the Internet. What's the first thing anyone bought over the Internet using a credit card? Well, pornography. Middle Men is the crazy story of the beginnings of the Internet porn empire. Most astonishing? That it's all pretty much true. The film is based on the life story of one of the producers, Christopher Mallick, and in a strange way Middle Men is a sexy variation on the American dream -- striking it rich in a very unexpected way.
On the worst night of his life, Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) is faced with a big problem and looks back on the circumstances that led him here. Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht) are not the first idiots to look at pornography on the Internet, but their decision to try and make pornography available for a fee would change everything. The two start out simple, scanning in pictures from magazines, but then reinvent the adult entertainment industry in 1995 when they write a program that allows people anywhere in the world to purchase pornography online using a credit card. Through constant bickering and a growing drug addiction, the two become involved with the Russian mob and fail to run their up-and-coming business; this is where Harris comes in. A respectable and capable problem solver, Harris leaves his happy family in Texas and flies out to Los Angeles to take over and changes the focus of the company from providing pornography to merely handling the transactions for thousands of content providers -- hence the name Middle Men. This decision makes all three men wealthy beyond imagination. Surrounded by drugs, starlets, sexuality, endless amounts of money, and the Russian mob, Harris begins to notice things aren't going so well at home with the wife and kids. Eventually the FBI gets involved, and Harris finds himself caught between his real life in Texas and his invented one in L.A. Then all hell breaks loose.
The film is fast-paced; there's no room for bathroom breaks lest some bit of plot go unheard or unseen. Added to the clipped montages and scenes of re-created past plot points is the fact that the film is narrated by Luke Wilson. Comparisons to Goodfellas are inevitable given the subject matter of sex, drugs, money, and mob involvement. The one dark spot of acting in a slew of accomplished supporting actors (James Caan as a crooked lawyer! Kelsey Grammer as a politician!) is Jacinda Barrett, who co-stars as Jack Harris' wife. From her fake Texas drawl to her wounded outrage at her husband's actions, her entire performance is jarring and misplaced.
However, enough good things cannot be said about the captivating Giovanni Ribisi, who shines in one of the stand-out performances of the year. There are several moments of stunning and unexpected hilarity during his most outrageous moments in what might best be summed up as "Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles." Along with the normally unbelievably good-looking Gabriel Macht, the pair are almost unrecognizable; they sink so deeply into their characters that the problems they create within the film feel wholly authentic. The film rides on their performances, and the audience reaps the benefit of such a complete commitment to acting. Luke Wilson suffers these fools gladly, and his patient hint-of-a-Texas-accent voice plays narrative straight man during voiceovers.
Honest, sexy, and charming, Middle Men is unexpectedly thrilling as well. The film is directed by George Gallo, of Midnight Run fame, and shot beautifully. The flashbacks and memory sequences have a completely different tone, and the time period of late '90s and early 2000s lends itself well to the production design and costuming.
This film is not for the prudish. There is heavy sexual content, including more frontal female nudity than a spam email promises. From the drug binges to the continual discussion of pornography and steady influx of breasts, Middle Men is very up front about the content. What they haven't been advertising so much is the crime drama aspect of the film. Lure 'em in with girls, and give 'em a story. The film is good, and the fact that it's about more than it seems to be about is excellent, but I'm having trouble ascertaining the intended audience. See it, but perhaps not on a first date.