In Middle Men, it’s 2004 and Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) seemingly has it all: a successful career – as the Don of internet porn, lots of money, massive house, doting wife and children… but he feels like he’s on the edge of a precipice.
Moving back and forth in time, we head back to 1988 when he meets and marries his girlfriend, Diana (Jacinda Barrett), while at college. Fast-forward to 1997 and we come across druggie wasters Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht) and Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi), though not perhaps complete wasters because they’ve found a way to make money from the burgeoning internet – they’ll cut out pictures from pornographic magazines, scan them into their computer, upload them to the internet and charge $10 per subscription. At first this brings in little money, but once word spreads, the dollars roll in like there’s no tomorrow and they soon have more money than they can handle.
Sounds like a simple premise, but this was back before the days of Amazon and the like, and we find it was actually them who came up with the nouse to write the credit card transaction program which is used by every organisation with a web presence today. The trouble is – they’re unfeasibly thick, and they need a manager. Enter Jack.
Jack is a man who learned the gift of the gab after working for gangster boss Louie LA LA (Robert Forster in a brief cameo), putting the mobster right by explaining to him that violence isn’t always the answer and that there’s nothing that can’t be overcome without a conversation, an art which Jack soon masters.
Jack comes in to help them sort things out by taking the program they created and making it work for other companies who want to sell to anyone in the world – even to the point of anonymising the site from which they’re making a purchase, so, as it’s porn, it shows up as “24/7 Billing Company” rather than “Bigtits.com”, for example, and as the transaction goes through, they can make 10% in the process as the middle men of the film’s title.
Over the next six years, we begin to learn what has now made Jack a disheartened businessman: travelling back and forth to glorious destinations to make pots of money, as well as a reputation, will eventually take it’s toll on your marriage – well, that and having an affair with the hottest porn star in the business, 23-year-old Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey). It also doesn’t do you any favours when you get tangled up with Russian kingpin Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija), a man whose morals left him a long time ago, especially when the aforementioned idiotic duo of Buck and Wayne think he would make for a respected business partner.
To add to Jack’s problems, there’s one-time big player Jerry Haggerty (James Caan, looking rather worse for wear these days) wanting a part of the business, but first Jack has to sort out the “Russian problem”, after Buck and Wayne have pissed away all their money and can’t pay the Russians. Oh, and throw in the FBI just to make matters more complicated.
Filmed in an engaging style with fast-paced editing and slo-mo when required, this is something which is mostly utilised early on as Buck and Wayne start their business, along with a voiceover from Jack while he’s also in the process of helping a friend set up a nightclub. After 30-40 minutes, however, things slow down as the ramifications of dealing with the Russian mob – and also putting your marriage in jeopardy – begin to take effect.
Luke Wilson is a likeable actor, and I much prefer him to his brother, the seemingly omnipotent Owen Wilson who, for me, just ruins almost every film he’s in. Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi, as Buck and Wayne, also put in a good turn here, while there’s welcome performances from Rade Serbedzija and also Kevin Pollak as FBI agent Curt Allmans.
Overall, however, Middle Men does tend to feel less than the sum of its parts as it winds towards its eventual conclusion. It’s a journey worth taking, but the final destination just doesn’t feel completely satisfying.