Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language, Drug Use and Violence
Directed by: George Gallo
Written by: George Gallo & Andy Weiss
Starring: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Laura Ramsey, Jacinda Barrett, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Kevin Pollak & Robert Forster
MIDDLE MEN plays out like the gooey mess of someone throwing THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET in a blender. That description should tell you if this film is in your wheelhouse or not. Based on the real-life experiences of Christopher Mallick (a morally questionable businessman in internet history), the film seems to jumble a bunch of different events into a coherent storyline that begins with a fast-pace and a lot of dark humor. Somewhere along the line, things get fumbled as the film significantly deviates into more familiar (probably entirely fictional) territory and ultimately becomes far less interesting.
Jumping from 1980’s to 1990’s and ultimately to the mid-2000’s, the plot revolves around (fictional character) Jack Harris who proves to have a talent for fixing difficult problems and being an equally skilled businessman. After turning a friend’s night club into a goldmine in the short period of a few months, Jack is called in to help two morons (Wayne and Buck) responsible for creating a revolutionary internet program. This program allows for anyone living anywhere in the world to enter their credit card information for a monthly subscription to online pornography. What else would be so popular on the worldwide web? Unfortunately, Wayne and Buck have gotten themselves in bed with the Russian mob and a crooked lawyer. Jack fixes their problems in the best way in can, but also finds himself immersed in the glamorous lifestyle centered around perversion, sex, and drugs. This puts his personal life in danger of falling apart, whilst also building tension between him and his long-distance family. The Jack’s (along with his two partner’s) problems only steadily increase into bigger issues…
MIDDLE MEN sounds like a recipe for success on many different levels. For the first half of the film, it delivers. The story is equipped with a rip-roaring fast face that jumps all over the place with ease. Frequent dark humor litters every scene and provides some much-needed comic relief that totally works. The use of the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic too. The whole film really does reek of a Scorsese-inspired filmmaker (in this case, George Gallo) and unlike most others who wind up ripping off the man’s style, Gallo works this all to his advantage. I absolutely loved the first 50 minutes of this film. It nailed everything one would hope for from a movie like this. Then things quickly turn in the opposite direction.
Everything that worked so well in the introduction and set up is slowed to a crawl for the remainder of the film and sometimes even forgotten. It seemed as if the filmmaker and co-screenwriter weren’t content with the already complicated story they were telling. The resulting solution being to throw in a bunch of unnecessary (most likely entirely made up) plot points that have been seen in plenty of crime thrillers. Every single one of these felt completely out-of-place in this would-be drama about the complicated inception of internet pornography. The tone also dives into decidedly darker territory and loses the likable sense of humor in the process. The laughs were so frequent in the first half that the rest of the film (again) seems to have forgotten what worked so well in the beginning. The tone jumps all over the place and things ultimately conclude in an ending that left me unsatisfied.
As far as the big name cast goes, nearly everyone delivers good performances across the board with one exception. That stick in the mud would be Luke Wilson. He’s enjoyable enough in comedies, but his dramatic side seems to be a mixed bag (e.g. VACANCY). In MIDDLE MEN, he’s taking center stage as the Ray Liotta role in GOODFELLAS. His voice-over narration lacks the charisma that Liotta delivered in Scorsese’s masterpiece. I didn’t mind this at the beginning due to how fascinating and entertaining everything else was, but Wilson winds up being an almost nobody of a leading man. His performance comes off as wooden. I was more interested in seeing everyone else around him.
Kelsey Grammer has a brief one-scene role. Kevin Pollak and Terry Crews show up as seldom seen side characters. As Wayne and Buck, Giovanni Ribsi and Gabriel Macht are a blast to watch. Their screen time seems to be significantly cut in the latter half, which adds yet another reason for the film to take a dip in quality halfway through. Their characters also make some far-fetched decisions that I didn’t buy, even seeing how dumb they had shown themselves to be in their actions leading up the final 30 minutes. A welcome James Caan is the best presence on-screen as a loathsome lawyer that has a shady side to say the least.
I really wanted to love MIDDLE MEN and I thought this might be an underrated gem from just how awesome the first half was. The humor was very funny. The pace was quick and flying by. The soundtrack was awesome and appropriate for each given time period. Then the movie takes a huge switch flip and things go downhill. A jumbled tone, overly familiar twists and some final notes that didn’t satisfy me in the slightest make MIDDLE MEN into an overall disappointment. It’s far from a terrible film. Everyone, except Luke Wilson, gives a solid performance. The film is competently shot and directed. Sadly, the end result is a mixed bag. If I saw this playing on cable and nothing else was on, then I’d switch it over to kill some time. I just don’t see myself going out of my way to watch this film again.