At least give Middle Men credit for being mildly original in its derivativeness. Most films that rip off Goodfellas’ third act begin conventionally, then resort to jittery camerawork, frenetic editing, and stylistic overload to convey the mounting psychological deterioration and paranoia of coke-addled characters. Middle Men reverses that dynamic by beginning with jittery camerawork, frenetic editing, and stylistic overload meant to convey the mounting insanity of accidental web pioneers Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht, then grows more conventional as the focus shifts away from two insane, jabbering cokeheads stumbling into riches, and toward a cool-headed, adroit operator played by a miscast Luke Wilson.
Based on the true story of Jack Harris, a happily married family man turned reluctant porn mogul, Middle Men casts Ribisi and Macht as a veterinarian and rocket scientist, respectively, who squander their intellects getting high and searching for porn in the early days of the dot-com boom. Fortune smiles on the misguided pair when they discover a way to take the shame out of purchasing porn online by billing customers anonymously for their cyber-decadence. Ribisi and Macht quickly get in over their heads and unwisely partner with the Russian mob, leaving Wilson to take over and restore some fiscal sanity to a business spinning out of control.
Middle Men squanders the relative novelty of its dot-com subject matter by making the ’90s online high life look more or less identical to the ’70s porn wonderland of Boogie Nights and the glitzy mob world of Goodfellas; mindless decadence is mindless decadence no matter the era or subculture. Director George Gallo quickly loses interest in Ribisi and Macht’s characters and trades in the obnoxiousness of two assholes living out their Playboy fantasies for the much blander story of a good man corrupted by this dirty, dirty business. As the film races into its final act, it piles on farfetched subplots involving everything from child pornography to a predatory lawyer (James Caan) to a porn star recruited by the FBI to fight terrorism. Like Ribisi and Macht’s miniature porn empire, Gallo’s mildly diverting but overstuffed, underdeveloped opus could use the cinematic equivalent of a fix-it man like Wilson’s character to transform its frenetic jumble of subplots and sleazy characters into a cohesive, satisfying whole.