How much did the explosion of Internet pornography in the late '90s change the world? According to "Middle Men," an agreeably sleazy, stylish, Scorsese-flavored film noir from director George Gallo and co-writer Andy Weiss, hardly at all. Both the specific story told in "Middle Men" and the larger narrative of media and technological shift it documents are based on the same premise, one amply supported by both literary and scientific evidence. Scratch an ordinary guy -- upstanding citizen and family man, or lowlife pool-hall drug dealer -- and under the surface you'll find an unrepentant, animalistic horndog.
During a very funny opening montage showing men all over the world enjoying varied forms of pornography from the age of black-and-white TV to the age of broadband, Houston businessman Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) explains this principle in droll, dry voice-over. But the joke is already on Jack, as he knows all too well: By that point he has abandoned his wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett) and their small children for a 23-year-old porn star named Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey), and he's got to take a whole bunch of cash in a duffel bag to a fateful, and possibly fatal, late-night meeting with some Russian mobsters.
If the basic film-noir formula involves stupid people doing bad things and vice versa, with one decent or at least likable character dragged into the middle of it all, then "Middle Men" is a near-classic example. Hopscotching around in space and time and artfully, restlessly photographed by Lukas Ettlin, this is an ambitious if derivative work of pop cinema, splitting the difference between a Scorsese film (most notably "Goodfellas") and a Coen brothers film (maybe "Burn After Reading"). As those models might suggest, it features lots of naked flesh, dangerous and/or unctuous villains galore and several hilariously unhinged supporting characters. If that sounds like a good time, you're on the right track. But wash your hands afterward -- and I'm not promising you'll still like yourself in the morning.
Film theorists have sometimes proposed that noir has an unsettling or destabilizing effect on the audience precisely because that likable guy at the center of the story often turns out to be a darker and more complicated figure than we first presumed. That's definitely an issue in "Middle Men," which is presented as a highly fictionalized version of producer Christopher Mallick's real-life '90s experiences at the head of a porn gateway called Paycom. With his shrewd, narrow eyes, non-movie-star face and slightly thick-set build, Luke Wilson is a master at capturing seemingly sympathetic and ordinary dudes who hold just a hint of danger. But is Jack a decent suburban dad after all, or just an opportunistic shithead looking out for No. 1?
Jack has a perfectly adorable wife in the steel-magnolia mode (wonderfully played by Barrett) to go with a legitimate business career at home in Houston. But Diana doesn't know about his past working with a kneecap-breaking Chicago mobster (that's Robert Forster, in flashbacks), and neither of them knows where Jack's decision to take over a friend's failing Los Angeles nightclub will lead. First of all, that's to a dubious, gravel-voiced attorney named Jerry Haggerty (James Caan), who knows a couple of drugged-out losers who have come up with that most precious of commodities, a moneymaking idea.
We've already met the paranoid, hirsute Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) and his pal Buck (Gabriel Macht), who despite his bluff, dense, frat-boy demeanor is actually a cashiered NASA scientist. While hanging out one night in their coked-out, Beavis-and-Butt-Head crash pad and lamenting the absence of decent porn on the Web, Wayne suggests a blindingly obvious idea and Buck executes it: a simple piece of software code that enables secure Internet credit-card transactions.
As anyone over 35 will immediately recognize, this was a crucial innovation. Before that technology existed, the idea that you would willingly send your credit card number through the electronic ether to a total stranger seemed ludicrous. As Diana tells Jack at the Houston airport, when she begins to figure out what he's up to, it's the craziest idea she ever heard in her life. Of course we all do it virtually every day now -- the software has been refined a bit since the late '90s, but remains essentially the same -- and the guys who did it first were just trying to sell secondhand dirty pictures they'd scanned out of porn magazines.
When Jack Harris comes along to play cool-headed Mr. Fix-It, Buck and Wayne have already made and spent millions by making and selling Internet porn. They're holed up in a suite at the Hard Rock in Vegas, not so slowly drowning in drugs, hookers and a large unpaid debt to their business partner, a Russian mobster named Nikita Sokoloff (Rade Serbedzija). Jack grasps immediately that there's plenty more oil in this particular well, more than enough to re-grease all the wheels and make everyone rich and happy. He sees a future where the whole thing is clean, clear and legal: Pay off Haggerty, pay off Sokoloff and build a company based on Buck and Wayne's innovation that serves only as a "middle man," bringing porn purveyors, porn consumers and their credit cards together in the magical nowhere of cyberspace.
That's what happened, more or less. But "Middle Men" is also true to the film-noir formula in being relentlessly moralistic, or rather -- and this is an important aspect of the formula -- being titillating, cynical and moralistic all at the same time. You can't wade into the swamp of porn and money and keep your hands clean, at least not in this universe, and pretty soon Jack is hopelessly addicted to a high-rolling, private-jet lifestyle, complicit in a number of significant felonies, and shacked up in Santa Monica with the lissome Audrey, who informs him, in uncomfortably graphic terms, that she understands exactly why he's there -- she's younger, hotter and, let's say, more physically compact than his wife.
Yeah, I know: Ick. Not long after that, Jack tells Audrey: "You know, sometimes I think there's a part of ourselves we just switch off." He means the part of ourselves that protests that it's wrong, wrong, wrong to make millions of dollars selling Asian-lesbian-schoolgirl fantasies to lonely guys perving out in the rec room. This is the moment where the contradiction or hypocrisy that always lies within this kind of movie -- if you ditch your wife, you'll get an amazingly hot chick! But then you'll wish you'd never done it! -- begins to eat the story from within. Audrey, who seems like an interesting character at first, eventually retreats into soulless porn-star stereotype. I wish I could tell you she pitches her glass of Sauvignon Blanc in Jack's face and says, "Maybe you should have had these profound insights before you bailed out on your family and committed a bunch of crimes, douche bag!"
There's a ludicrous terrorist-related subplot during the final act of "Middle Men" that must be based on reality, because it's entirely too stupid for Gallo and Weiss to have made it up. But even as this film unravels into incoherent, self-justifying moral instruction, it never becomes boring to watch. Gallo, who remains best known as the writer of "Midnight Run" 22 years ago, makes a bid here to become a big-time, high-style Hollywood director. With this highly entertaining, flawed, ripped-off-and-reassembled carnival of sleaze, he may get there.