If the plot of Middle Men sounds familiar—Luke Wilson gets in bed with James Caan, who just wants to fuck him—that’s because it’s the same as the plot of Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s 1996 directorial debut, in which Wilson and Caan worked together for the first time. Middle Men is that tale told without the hard-boiled whimsy, though the classic-rock score remains: Wilson plays a relatively decent guy embraced by Caan’s sleazebag operator, who then introduces him to the idiots who will bring about his ultimate undoing.
Wilson plays Jack Harris, a wholly fictionalized character—“based on a true story,” not so much—who, according to George Gallo and Andy Weiss’s screenplay, helps introduce pornography to the World Wide Web and the World Wide Web to your credit card. But Jack’s just the middleman: He clears the path for the inventors of online porn (Giovanni Ribisi as Wayne, Gabriel Macht as Buck), paying off all gangsters, attorneys, and other crooks and cronies who come at him.
Told in flashback, it’s first a stormy night in Houston, 2004. Jack’s peeling out of the driveway beneath an apocalyptic storm with $4 mil in a zipped-up bag. Bad things are happening, he tells the audience, and all because “I figured out a better way for guys to jack off.” Cut to: Houston, 1998, a church social with fried chicken, balloons, and the Girl of Jack’s Dreams (Diana, played by Jacinda Barrett). Cut to Los Angeles, 1997, and Wayne and Buck snorting coke in a smoky, cramped apartment, short on jerk-off options.
Called west by a wife’s friend to rescue a nightclub, Jack lands in Los Angeles like all starry-eyed comers from the flyover who seek reinvention. Before long, he’s a modest success as a self-proclaimed No. 1 Problem Solver, at which point Caan, as Vegas shyster Jerry Haggerty, rings up Jack and asks him to help Wayne and Buck square their debt to the Russian mob, fronted by Rade Serbedzija as Nikita Sokoloff (because Boris Badenov was already spoken for, da?). And next thing ya know ol’ Jack’s a millionaire; come ’03 he’s living large in hardcore (“a world without filters,” he justifies) and leaving behind the mundane humdrum of Houston, where he’s stashed away Diana and kids in an enormous house he’s stopped visiting.
Jack’s new perks include private jets and porn-star privates (Jack shacks up with Laura Ramsey’s starlet, who brags of her “tighter pussy”). But the downside’s always around the corner in a movie like this; one minute you’re knee-deep in dough and, strange, the next you’re being visited by an FBI agent played by Kevin Pollak who likes you enough to give you this one warning, see?
But for all that predictability, Middle Men is smart and tense, with each scene drenched in dread: Something bad’s coming, but when? Still, as a soap, it could use more opera. Directed and co-written by Gallo, still best known for having done Midnight Run back when Charles Grodin was famous, Middle Men is ultimately Scorsese-lite—Goodfellas set in naked lady–filled San Fernando Valley office complexes, with Wilson narrating his rise and fall and, he hopes, redemption. The Stones on the soundtrack are too dead-on; the homage is obvious. And the movie’s a bit undone, amazingly enough, by its brevity, a running time of not much more than 100 minutes—surprising given the indulgence of most tepid feature films these days.
Middle Men‘s characters are intriguing enough that it’s a shame when, just as we want to know more, it’s off to another place with another thing with another guy who either wants to kill Luke Wilson or get money from Luke Wilson or kill Luke Wilson and then take his money. There’s little time to luxuriate in the opulence of porn’s profits, and little time to suffocate in the feeling of walls closing in on and crushing the poor bastard who thought he’d gotten the Good Life.
Thankfully, then, even without much character development, the compelling story holds, mostly due to Wilson. Jack’s a solid center—the guy treats every encounter, no matter how intimate or dangerous, like a business transaction. He gets stuff done, even if it involves blackmailing the Harris County district attorney, who insists on prosecuting Jack’s son for high school grade tampering. Easily Wilson’s best performance since Bottle Rocket (and don’t say The Royal Tenenbaums, because Gene Hackman swallowed the cast whole, which was the point). Definitely better than those AT&T ads.