There was a point when I was watching Middle Men where I had developed a newfound appreciation for Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Not that I didn't have it already (I've bought the thing on standard definition twice and then again when it came out on Blu-ray), but there have been a few films since then which have had pornography either up front and center or in the background, and they've tried to accomplish what Anderson does and fail. In the case of Middle Men they seem to go through the machinations and think that's enough.
Andy Weiss (who apparently did some writing for the Ashton Kutcher show Punk'D) co-wrote the screenplay with George Gallo (Local Color), who also directed. The film is inspired by the story of Christopher Mallick. Mallick produced the film and was responsible for a technology that facilitated memberships to adult websites. The technology made customer billing more discreet and made he and his partners tens of millions of dollars. Mallick is renamed Jack Harris for the film and is portrayed by Luke Wilson (Henry Poole is here), and he's trying to manage the relationship with his partners Buck (Gabriel Macht, The Spirit) and Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi, Avatar), the Russian mafia and their lawyer (the latter played by James Caan, Elf). Oh, and Jack tries to balance the personal life he has with his wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett, The Last Kiss) and newfound girlfriend, porn star Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey, The Ruins).
Granted, there is some intrigue to be gleaned from the technology that is developed by Jack, Buck and Wayne, and the scenes that show various farmers, lawyers and even Al-Qaeda members enjoying themselves with the product (combined with Wilson's voiceover that discusses the availability of porn to me and the moneymaking that can be gained from it) are mildly funny. But it's watching how the story evolves that gets a little muddled. When it comes to that, the movie points out that it's actually Buck and Wayne that develop this trigger, Jack is introduced to them by Jerry (Caan) and subsequently, Jack buys Jerry out of his stake and elevates the technology to new moneymaking heights. It even gets surreal when at one point the FBI approaches him and the agent in charge (Kevin Pollak, Cop Out) about making some specific sites to help track down terrorists for apprehension, a 'Porn for Patriotism' if you will. But by this point, this scene feels like one of many different twists and turns to distract you from the core story, which would apparently be one of a business relationship gone sour and where one of the parties is conflicted about their role as it is, but the story doesn't seem to know where it's going at times.
Additionally, the film tries to borrow from other similar films and lazily tries to put its own stamp on them. You've got the obligatory swipes at right-leaning authorities similar to The People vs. Larry Flynt, Jack seems to borrow a little bit of naivety about the gangsters a la Val Kilmer in Wonderland, and there's some time where Wayne and Buck evolve the product (and later Jack elevates it into an absurdly good moneymaker) that's Boogie Nights-ish in terms of the glory days, the salad era for all involved. And of course there's montages galore, where there are lots of boobies, girls (and/or guys) having sex, diffused by an occasional comedic moment, all the while with some foot-tapping rock song playing in the background. It's 112 minutes of tired flash over little substance, bound to leave those who see it wondering if the real story was any more entertaining and, if so, why they didn't bother to tell THAT?
That's the impression I get from watching Wilson's performance. He's got the hound dog countenance down pat, but he doesn't navigate the story well, or perhaps his heart wasn't in it. Macht feels like his performance is limited to shocked and outraged looks by Ribisi and/or Wilson, and Caan is doing...something with Jerry. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it's almost like he's doing Brando in The Godfather, or at least the cotton in the cheeks bit. It's like rubbernecking a car crash, I don't know what he's doing here, and moreover I don't think he does. Everyone else is fairly one-dimensional for the roles.
Between the performances and the story, the aversion to Middle Men seems all the more understandable. I think we're long past the point of seeing nudity for nudity's sake, and it's thrown up there a little bit but has little behind it. What makes Boogie Nights an excellent film are the things that Middle Men lacks, and the result leaves Middle Men a modest mess at best.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded Blu-ray disc that Middle Men is housed on is underwhelming on a couple of different levels. There is a surprising lack of image detail in the foreground, and the background image has some clarity and multidimensional feel that even for something you would think would be a flashy production, it's not. It's fairly disappointing even when you consider how modest the production values had to be coming into this.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround track is decent, but then again it has to be with songs from the Rolling Stones (among others) coursing through its sonic veins. It includes environmental sounds and the low murmur of bass in clubs and even when a man falls through a glass table there's a hint of low-end fidelity. Directional effects and channel panning are at a minimum, but dialogue sounds consistent through much of the production and stays in the center channel. At least it sounded good while I listened to it.
Gallo, cinematographer Lukas Ettlin and editor Malcolm Campbell join forces for a commentary that's full of the usual talking points in a commentary. Gallo has some decent recall about a particular production day though it's not worth writing home about, and Ettlin and Campbell talk in broader approaches about the look of the film or provide a scene breakdown here and there. It would have been nice to have Mallick chime in with some real-world context here, but oh well. Next are three equally forgettable deleted scenes (5:48), followed by some outtakes (1:40) that do have a chuckle or two in them. A montage of all of the face slaps in the film wraps the disc up (:57).
Middle Men is a lot closer to Wonderland than Boogie Nights, made all the less so by a confused, hollow story and uninspired performances from its stars. Technically it's subpar for such a recent release and supplementally could be a lot better than it is. Don't waste your time on it unless you're intensely curious.