With its hyperactive narrative, featuring a nearly constant and roaming narrator, Middle Men feels more like a pitch session than a fully formed story.

It opens with a hook: A man is loading the trunk of his car with a duffel bag full of money, ready to drive off to pay some Russian mobsters in order to rescue a child they’ve captured. Doesn’t that just capture your imagination? Who is this guy? How does he know the Russians? What does he do for a living to have access to so much cash?

Those are the only details with which director George Gallo and Andy Weiss’s screenplay is concerned — the highlights of the plot and its central character.

The man with a duffel bag on a mission is Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), and this is his story, based (very loosely, we can only presume) on the business ventures of one of the movie’s producers, Christopher Mallick.

There’s romance! He proposes to Diana (Jacinda Barrett) in the late 1980s. They get married and have children. There’s intrigue! He once worked for a Chicago gangster (Robert Forster in a thankless cameo) and learned the vital rules of negotiation. There’s cunning! A pair of losers named Wayne and Buck (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) has no direction. That is until Wayne uploads some porn to the Internet, and Buck develops a program to charge people’s credit cards online.

There’s crime! Looking to expand their subscriber base, Wayne and Buck make a deal with the head of the Russian mob in Los Angeles (Rade Serbedzija) to pay a percentage of their profits in exchange for permission to photograph and film his strippers. There’s deceit! Jack’s old acquaintance Jerry (James Caan), lawyer to scumbags and one himself, suggests our man help Wayne and Buck out of their current mess. Seeing the opportunity to rake in some cash, he partners up with the two, keeping the whole business affair from his wife.

Ties, legal and illegal, are crossed. Deals, legit and shady, are made. It’s all complex and convoluted and yet so simplistic. First, there’s Jack detailing each nuance of each and every direct or indirect movement by each and every, single player in his drama. There is simply no way to confuse any action in its intent or future effect on the rest of the story, because Jack’s voice over hardly ceases.

Second, it is only about the characters’ actions and how they affect the plot. Jack mentions (in narration, naturally) how he has become addicted to the lifestyle that comes with having a lot of money and working implicitly and noncommittally with the porno industry. We see him flying in private jets, attending parties, and generally hobnobbing with adult film stars. He even begins an affair with Audrey Dawns (Laura Ramsey), whose solo act on the Web has many fans, including the FBI, who are able to locate terrorists when they log on to watch one of her shows.

Yes, that is a plot point, brought forth to Jack and Audrey by a federal agent (Kevin Pollack) who wants their patriotic cooperation, and as absurd and illogical as it sounds, the turn is at least unique and unexpected. Even it, though, adds to a broad conflict between business partners. Wayne and Buck are jealous of Jack’s rise to fame and start to think his association with the FBI is against them. See, they become involved with Jerry, who introduces them to a sleazy porn producer, who gets them tangled up in something illegal, and so on and so forth.

Jack doesn’t want to get in over his head, which is a bit naïve considering that his first negotiation session for the business results in the death and disposal of the body of a Russian gangster. Jack is good at playing the innocent.

He doesn’t want to be in the pornography business, yet he has its representatives come to the office and partakes in their life of excess. He wants to be a good family man, but he has to be out of town so often. He wants to be a decent husband, but since he’s out of town so often, he just has to hook up with Audrey. He wants to be a legitimate business man, and yet it seems that every business venture with which he deals involves people on the fringes or outside of the law. Without even the slightest care about Jack as a character, leaving him a reporter of his own life, these paradoxes are left as inconsistent characterizations.

There is a good story somewhere in Middle Men about ambition, skirting the law, and achieving success while failing in so much else. That story, though, lies in developing characters instead of watching them wander through generic scenarios.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

Post a Comment