By now it’s a safe bet that for every one person who asks, “What did people do before the Internet?” with regard to restaurant reviews or Google Maps, at least ten more are wondering the same thing with regard to porn. Does that mean it’s time for a movie about how Internet porn as we know it came to be?
Nah. But here’s “Middle Men” anyway. Reportedly based on stuff that actually happened to one of its producers, this movie also has the more important credential of a proclivity for groping opportunism — and, accordingly, an aura of self-deluded sleaze.
It hinges on Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht as an over-coked (and over-acted) dum-dee duo of the ’90s, figuring out together how to put porn on line and get people to pay for it by credit card. But sudden millions lead to trouble with the Russian mob, so their shyster lawyer James Caan hooks them up with business-fixer Luke Wilson, a family man from Texas whom they promptly corrupt.
It’s Wilson who narrates, filling our ears with his notably accent-denuded drawl and situating himself as the protagonist, which will have to serve as the movie’s cheeky rebuke to the constant rationalization that he’s just a middle man. (Hey, hotel owners have porn available in all their rooms, but we don’t think of them as peddlers of smut, do we? Wait, do we?)
Notwithstanding the denial problem, he’s got a good head for business, although where that came from is anyone’s guess. He’s also got a loyal and gorgeous gingham-picnic wife, played by Jacinda Barrett. But then the porn performer played by Laura Ramsay catches his eye, and the center cannot hold.
It’s a problem that “Middle Men” can’t quite capitalize on the narrowness of Wilson’s range, which seems here less like tasteful restraint than the limitation of inscrutability. Also, even more annoying than the abundance of forced banter between quarrelsome druggy idiots, which is pretty annoying, is the abundance of bogus chastity. It’s just not right for a movie about the proliferation of hardcore to seem so coyly soft-pedaled.
Co-written by “Punk’d” veteran Andy Weiss and director George Gallo, who wrote “Midnight Run” and nothing else nearly as good, “Middle Men” must at least be applauded for its rare unity of content and style: It’s exactly as tawdry and disposable as a masturbation-aid snapshot still lingering on your laptop screen just after the fact, and even clearing your browser history won’t fully undo it.
But it might be on to something for seeming ultimately more unctuous than erotic, and for channeling the period in which it’s set by ripping off that era’s movie milestones, like “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights” — not to mention “Bottle Rocket,” the original cons-and-morons caper vehicle for Luke Wilson and James Caan. Cue the classic movie-soundtrack rock.
It all being so whoreish, so done-beforeish, is part of the point, right? Fine, but what if by now the point is moot?