Middle Men

Year: 2009
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Director: George Gallo
Producer: Christopher Mallick
Writer: George Gallo/Andy Weiss
Cast: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabrielca Macht, Jacinda Barrett, James Caan, Rade Serbedzija, Laura Ramsey, Kevin Pollack, John Ashton, Kelsey Grammer, Robert Forster

Sometimes a movie just doesn't catch on, and nobody but the movie gods know why. Middle Men looked great on paper – a stylised take on the early days of Internet porn and how it revolutionised commerce and ushered in the world we know today. It would have low lives, gangsters, violence, porn stars – what's not to love?

But here's what you don't often see about movies that seem to have all the elements but don't make any money. It was great on screen too. How this $20m film didn't even make back a million in the US is beyond me. As far as I can see, it wasn't buried because of studio or star politics or slate problems and Paramount Vantage released it widely enough for a movie of its class, it just flopped.

There are only two problems I can see that might have affected it. The first is that I remember watching the trailer ages ago and it was marketed very much as a comedy whereas the end product was more a drama thriller with plenty of comic elements.

The second problem was Luke Wilson. As well as his usual appearance in bumbling good guy roles (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), he looks like a bumbling good guy, and even though he carried most of the film well it was a little hard to swallow him flying to LA to run a hot nightclub and have a big tough black guy friend/bouncer, dealing confidently with Russian mobsters and kick starting the smutty world of online sex.

But none of that detracts from the great cast of characters, the stylised storytelling or in the most surprising and welcome aspect, the smart female and government characters. Jack's (Wilson) wife Diana (Barrett) is a big-haired Texas dame who sounds like Dolly Parton but is never played for a fool and comes across as a richly emotional being rather than a southern fried caricature.

And the pretty Laura Ramsey is the same as porn star Audrey Dawns, who Jack falls in with and into bed with. She's an intelligent young woman with a business plan who appears not to be running away from an abusive family or a drug habit and who doesn't turn into a shrieking harpy when things go bad.

The same goes for Kevin Pollack as FBI agent Allmans. You'd expect a movie like this – about the birth of commercial innovation – to treat the government as ineffective, bumbling do-gooders trying to keep up and the stiffness and formality in Pollack's character makes him seem that way at first, but when his agenda is revealed and Jack gets to know him he reveals himself to be as human as anyone else on screen.

But the ones who will capture most of the attention with their histronics are Ribisi as Wayne and Macht as Buck – two bozos with a great idea but without half a brain between them to execute it properly and whose antics make up most of the comedy they used in the trailer.

Loosely based on true events, Harris is a specialist consultant who rescues ailing companies. While in LA from his Houston home to get a nightclub owned by a sick friend up and running he comes across Wayne and Buck, two pothead idiot savant geniuses who've discovered ecommerce almost accidentally by scanning pictures in porn magazines, putting them on a website and charging for the privilege of looking at them.

With money rolling in Buck and Wayne have fallen in with a Russian mafia don Nikita (Serbedzija) while filming the girls in his strip club to expand their business. But with them snorting most of the profits up their noses and teetering on the edge of sleeping with the fishes thanks to their debts, Jack agrees to meet them thanks to old and crooked associate Jerry (Caan) and turns the operation into a legitimate, multimillion dollar online payments processing operation.

But as he =commutes between his wholesome, loving home and the seedy world of gangsters and pornstars Jack forgets what's real, dumping his wife and moving in with bewitching young porn actress Audrey while trying to stay one step ahead of the melee as rivals, sleazebags and cutthroats all want a piece of him. And just when things couldn't get any worse the FBI appears, asking for his help in their terrorism efforts with every kind of illegality going on under their noses.

It was a funny and fantastic story full of great characters and deserved much better than the cinema release treated it. Keep it in mind when you watch it and you'll see overtones of Scorsese homage – from the visual flourishes to Jack's generous voiceover.

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