Who is a pornographer? Surely the fine folks over at Vivid Entertainment are pornographers. But what about the Hyatt? Holiday Inn? The Hiltons? (Well, minus Paris, perhaps). This the question Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) finds himself faced with in “Middle Men,” the closing film of this year’s SBIFF.
Harris is forced to ponder these semantics when he finds himself in the biggest business deal of his life: a ground-floor position with the first company to invent a discrete billing system for Internet commerce, specifically nude pictures of women.
Unfortunately for Harris, sideways glances at church are the least of his problems, because the “company” in question is little more than two coked-out losers (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) with high IQs, low inhibitions and absolutely no sense of social couth. Before Harris even knows what’s happening, the bumbling criminals find themselves in bed with the Russian mafia.
Harris knows he should get out, but threats of violence to his family and the allure of hundreds of millions of dollars keep him from leaving. Eventually, he ends up killing mobsters, sleeping with the talent and helping the CIA assassinate terrorist leaders.
“Middle Men” is a much better movie than you might expect, especially given the fact that it comes from a staff writer of “Punk’d” and the director of the Eddie Griffin vehicle “Double Take.” The pacing is nimble, the jokes are funny and the acting is surprisingly good. James Caan is terrific as a sleazy lawyer with fewer scruples than the mafia, and Ribisi and Macht are great fun to watch as the lovable scumbag inventors, even Wilson rises above his usual cardboard personality.
The real standout, however, is relative newcomer Laura Ramsey, who plays a young nubile so piping hot that members of al Qaeda are willing to risk their lives to check out her Web page through satellite uplink. She swings between wounded puppy and cold-hearted vixen with ease and believability finding the real meat of her porn-star character. Rarely have I seen a film that treats a woman in the sex trade as an actual subject instead of an object, and the filmmakers deserve praise for this.
Unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Though individual sequences are superb, the film is mired by the oversimplification of Wilson’s protagonist. The filmmakers clearly want the audience to like Harris, but it’s rather difficult to root for a guy who stays involved in a crooked business deal with the mafia that endangers his children — who he later abandons for a 23-year-old porn star — commits murder and finds himself involved in child pornography due to his own negligence. Also, the film never gives a moment’s pause to the idea that maybe the CIA isn’t 100 percent accurate with its so-called terrorist targets. It seems that being in the Middle East and wearing a turban is good enough for a death sentence here. Of course, given that the film also features Kelsey Grammer, I don’t think liberal-minded discussions of world politics were ever on the menu.
“Middle Men” is no “Boogie Nights” or “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” but it is a good time at the movies. Like the product at its center, it is fun, disposable, cheap, satisfying and easily forgettable.