Oh, Hollywood. You're always messing with our heads. The opening titles to Middle Men say it's "Inspired by a True Story," but the end titles say, "This film is, in its entirety, a work of fiction." Those statements aren't technically contradictory, but I guess the truth is somewhere in the "middle."
"Inspired," then, by the exploits of internet billing mogul Christopher Mallick, the story of Middle Men stretches back to 1988 and sprawls forward to 2004. But most of it takes place in the "middle," the 1990s, when slovenly, bickering roommates Wayne Beering and Buck Dolby (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) inspire each other to reinvent porn as a fast, instant, and private pastime—via the internet. Otherwise dumb as rocks, they're in desperate need of rescue from a man with a business plan. Enter Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), an all-purpose business-fixer who sees an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something big.
Those expecting a comical look at how two losers stumbled on "the greatest invention of all time" (online credit card billing) will be satisfied with the film's opening movements. Unfortunately, Middle Men swiftly turns into a pastiche of Scorsese movies and their many descendants, contrasting a high-roller lifestyle with its seedy underbelly as Jack goes on a journey of temptation to sin. As if this trajectory weren't immediately obvious, it's foretold to us step by step in the portentous narration scripted by George Gallo & Andy Weiss.
Gallo's self-consciously overstated direction feeds the impression that he's trying to remake Goodfellas (by way of Casino). Side note: can we all agree by now that the use of "Sympathy for the Devil" in crime pictures ought to be outlawed? At any rate, Middle Men stocks up on career-threatening drug and alcohol abuse, political corruption (represented by Kelsey Grammer's sleazy senator), conspiracy (represented by James Caan's sleazy lawyer), and, of course, the Russian mob (headed up by Rade Serbedzija).
The married Harris sees himself as "a family man," but he's more cunning than he'd care to admit to himself (at least Wilson does soulfully conflicted well). Despite being an absentee father seduced by the availability of money, power, and sex, Jack is meant to be implicitly sympathetic; we're supposed to root for him to dig himself out of a hole and hiss both Jacinda Barrett as his wronged wife (Gallo makes sure we don't miss the bling adorning her as she hypocritically insists, "I despise this hypocrisy") and Laura Ramsey as the porn-star (read: hussy) who wants Jack to herself.
Meanwhile, the potential satire of the "pure Americana" of porn and entrepreneurship fades into memory as Ribisi and Macht turn out to be plot devices rather than characters. Mostly, Middle Men ends up being derivative and distasteful. I guess that's why my star rating fell...in the "middle."
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]