'Middle Men' is an extravagantly boring and ill-conceived film which uses a series of noir clichés to tell the based-on-the-true story of the growth of payments for pornography on the internet. I would usually admit with some embarrassment that I cannot remember any of the characters’ names and look them up on IMDB but, faithful reader, that would be quite untrue to the 'Middle Men' experience.
So: Some guy (Luke Wilson) narrates how he moved from Mob enabler to working on the periphery of the pornography business. The narration moves about all over the place, in the offensive and ingratiating tone of a work colleague whose weekend you don’t want to hear about because it might implicate you in some way, and probably involves a strip club (more on this shortly).
Soon the narrator is talking about some other guys (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) who had the idea originally and get kind of rich, but also into trouble with the Russian Mafia. They are rocket scientists or something but they are also coke-heads and well. Later on they get into a bunch of trouble for hosting a website which has sexually explicit pictures of minors in it.
Ribisi’s and Macht’s scenes are played in full on broad bozo farce mode which sits really grimly with the suggestion of paedophilic crime – though it isn’t full-on queasy, simply because 'Middle Men' is so aggressively dull that it’s very difficult to remember what they are supposed to have done. The nearest we get to an exploration of the female point of view is a porn star played by Laura Ramsey who gets into a kind of relationship with Luke Wilson and who is much masturbated over by members of international terrorist networks – or at least, so the FBI have claimed to her...
Look, I can read, and the last sentence does make it sound like 'Middle Men' has an outrageous heart and comic-farcical plotting. Please let me disabuse you of this idea. I don’t know about you, but even in American fictions I like, like say 'The Wire' or 'The Sopranos', my heart always sinks when the action moves into a strip club.
For reasons which are completely opaque to me, gangsterish fictions do not treat strip clubs as tawdry or run-down, or even as sexy and fun, (I’ve never been into a strip-club so I don’t know if this is anyone’s experience.. I feel like I have because a) there is a really grim hoarding-truck which drives around the Old Street area of London advertising clubs with grim sub Ann Summers iconography and b) I’ve seen too many crime dramas.)
In fictions like this, strip clubs get treated as the kind of location which has to be filmed with the slow-motion pomposity which Laurence Olivier brought to the coronation sequence in 'The Prince And The Showgirl' when he got to quit gurning over Marilyn Monroe and really bring the pageantry.
Actually, I do know the reason strip-clubs are treated in this way and it is boobies. 'Middle Men' has a bunch of scenes actually set inside strip-clubs but that mesmerised tone is over the whole of it: can you believe it, ma, a poor little film like me got to see boobies in the city and next thing you know I’ll have a plot with wanking terrorists. It starts with a historical montage of antiquarian pornography and a guy in the 1950s who gets caught masturbating by his mother. None of this is any good.
Many, perhaps most, people use pornography and it seems pretty likely that this has increased with access to the internet and (at least in the period this film covers) with the rise of pay services. There are good films on this subject – 'Boogie Nights' is pretty good, and the sections of 'Short Cuts' about the sex-line, but they have some interest in, oh, I don’t know, women and human sexuality, business and the profit motive, life, death, corruption, sleaze, perversion, what people feel they have to do to make a living.
What they’re not is sanctimoniously prurient, while 'Middle Men' is. Those films - which, sure, have their own faults - are not overwhelmed by the one thought that this is all so important, so criminal and so very, very now. I even remember some of the characters’ names.
'Middle Men' is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.co.uk.