MIDDLE MEN - Blu-ray review

...a film that can't make up its mind what it wants to be: a comedy, a melodrama, a crime thriller, or a documentary.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The filmmakers preface 2009's "Middle Men" by saying the movie was "Inspired by a true story." Then at the end of the film they say "While suggested by actual events, this motion picture is in its entirety a work of fiction. All character names have been invented, all characters have been composited or invented, and all incidents have been fictionalized." That rather muddled message gives you a clue about the film's content and why it doesn't work nearly as well as it should have.

As you probably know, in the Seventies and Eighties the porn industry helped video tape become a success in the home, and in the Nineties the porn industry likewise helped the Internet become as successful as it is. The character who narrates the movie tells us that the porn industry currently "takes in over $57,000,000,000 worldwide, with no one ever admitting that they watch." The movie "Middle Men" tells the story of how that happened.

With the kind of titillating material the movie covers and the capable cast the filmmakers assembled to tell it, you'd think the movie couldn't miss. I mean, you'll find sex, drugs, violence, humor, drama, and suspense in the film, or as the MPAA put it in their R rating, "strong sexual content, language, drug use and violence." Co-writer and director George Gallo ("Trapped in Paradise," Local Color," "Homeland Security") attempts to combine a little of "Boogie Nights" with a heap of "Goodfellas" in telling his story, but what he winds up with, for all his good intentions, is something so hit-or-miss and scattershot, going off in so many different directions, it never gels, never clicks. It's not a bad movie, mind you; it's just too random and frenetic to be a good one.

Apparently, Paramount honchos felt the same way I did about it; they released the movie to a few film festivals and to limited distribution before they pulled the plug. The $22,000,000 production had returned less than $1,000,000 before the studio decided to issue it on disc. Maybe it will do better on DVD and Blu-ray than it did in theaters.

Anyway, Luke Wilson stars as straight-arrow Texas family man Jack Harris, a character people know as somebody who's "good at fixing things." That is, he's always helping out on the outskirts of some shady business without actually being shady himself. As Jack explains it in a continuous voice-over, he once persuaded a local crime boss's strong-arm man, Louie LA LA (played in a cameo by Robert Forster), that it was better to negotiate with somebody who owed him money than break his kneecaps. Jack is good like that at negotiating things.

Another of Jack's acquaintances is a sleazy Vegas lawyer named Jerry Haggerty (brilliantly played by James Caan, easily the best part of the movie), who tells Jack about these two morons, Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht), on the West Coast who have invented a scheme to sell customers dirty pictures over the Internet. Apparently, it was the first time anybody had done it, and one of the cretins, Buck, who seems actually quite smart (a former NASA scientist, fired for monkeying around), has created a program to take people's money over the Web via credit card. Nobody had done that before, either, and, according to the movie, practically every Web site today that exchanges money with customers uses this same basic credit-card payment program.

The "however" is that these two imbeciles start making millions of dollars practically overnight and don't know how to deal with it. They become involved early on with a Russian mobster (Rade Sherbedgia), making him a partner, and when the money starts rolling in, they spend it foolishly rather than sharing it. Jack's lawyer friend suggests that Jack may be able to help these idiots out, since the Russian mobster is about to off them.

What Jack does is develop another scheme whereby they bill customers indirectly for their services rather than have the name of a porn site show up on their credit-card statements. Before long, hundreds of other pay-for-view Web sites pop up, all of them wanting to use Jack and the boys' billing service.

The movie, then, is about Jack going to the Coast, essentially becoming a partner in porn with the two guys, organizing their business, making amends with the mobsters, and becoming a millionaire in the process. But, wait, that's not all. Jack also falls for a porn star (Laura Ramsey), witnesses a murder, and arranges for the disposal of the body. And he separates from his wife (Jacinda Barrett). And he gets followed by the FBI (Kevin Pollak) for reasons of homeland security and terrorist plots. And with his best friend (Terry Crews) he becomes co-owner of a nightclub. And he has to deal with a corrupt district attorney (Kelsey Grammer in yet another of the movie's cameos) and a hypocritical school principal to fix a problem with his son at school. And, and, and....

Did I mention that writer-director Gallo bites off more than he can chew? The movie begins in 2004, flashes back to 1988, then ahead to 1997, back to 1990, ahead to 1997, back further to 1985, and I gave up counting the time jumps at that point because I was only about ten minutes into the movie. Now, none of this hyperactivity is harmful to a film if it's handled right; it's that the way Gallo deals with it, it just seems like a gimmick, a device to keep the viewer interested in nonstop activity instead of having any real story to tell.

Other problems: There's literally no one in the film with whom we can either sympathize for or root against. Luke Wilson is always a nice guy on screen, and his Jack Harris is a really decent character despite his unethical associations. But he's too nice. He's nice to the point of blandness. Nice to the point of our questioning how such a nice guy could possibly find himself involved in the debauchery and corruption surrounding him. All the rest of the characters are disreputable beyond belief, yet they're never particularly funny enough or evil enough to warrant our attention.

Accordingly, what we get in "Middle Men" is a film that can't make up its mind what it wants to be: a screwball comedy, a lurid melodrama, an action-filled crime thriller, or a straightforward documentary. Gallo shifts the tone so much, this viewer found it hard to concentrate on anything or anyone or care about any of it. Yet despite all of this, there are moments when we can see what Gallo is trying to achieve and almost feel sorry he didn't quite make it. Maybe "Middle Men" is simply an overly ambitious film, which is better, I suppose, than an empty one.

The Paramount engineers use an MPEG-4 AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50 to transfer the 2.35:1 ratio movie to Blu-ray disc. However, the filmmakers appear to have purposely emphasized the sordid nature of the of the porn business by shooting the movie in often gaudy, oversaturated colors. Sometimes the image looks quite natural and realistic; most of the time it looks too bright or too dark or too flashy and tacky, with faces too often orangish. Object delineation and inner detailing range from average to excellent, but there is no evidence of edge enhancement or filtering.

Although Paramount use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to reproduce the soundtrack, you'd never know it. About the best thing one can say about the sound is that it can get very loud without distorting. Beyond that, there's not much surround, not much frequency range, not much deep bass, not much of dynamic response, not even much of a front-channel stereo spread. In its favor, the backgrounds are quiet and the midrange is smooth, if that's what you're looking for.

We get the usual bonus items on the disc, all of them in standard definition. First up is the mandatory audio commentary, this one by director George Gallo, editor Malcolm Campbell, and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin. After that are three deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen, totaling almost six minutes; about two minutes of outtakes; and a one-minute "Slap Montage," which collects together all the times the characters in the movie slap each other. Since the movie plays in part like a Three Stooges comedy, the slaps seem appropriate.

The extras wrap up with sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; English as the only spoken language;
English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
You have to admire writer/director Gallo's ambitions in "Middle Men." He wants the film to be so much more than it is but can't get a handle on how to do it. So he fills it with everything but the kitchen sink, its tone changing from comic to serious every two minutes. While some movies have done such things before--"Boogie Nights" and Tarantino's films come to mind--"Middle Men" doesn't manage the job. It's lively, to be sure, but it never comes to life.


Film Value