The Luke Wilson Movie About Online Porn Wants To Have It Three Ways

The promotional materials for Middle Men assert that this movie would like to take us back to a simpler time—a time when the Internet wasn’t used for buying things, when record stores still existed, and when people got their porn on paper—and then show us how it all changed after the advent of anodyne-sounding line items on your credit-card billing statement. Indeed, during its beginning and closing minutes, the film seems to want to play some kind of explanatory role regarding how we got here, to modernity, with our crazy, mixed-up digital world. But viewing every minute in between suggests something nearly opposite: that its makers actually adore the contemporary, oft-discussed problem of conveying tone on the Internet, and are hoping to bring some of that same contextual chaos into the cineplex—specifically, into a period piece focused on some very recent history.

The film’s entire based-on-real-life story revolves around one businessman (played by Luke Wilson), who labors mightily in order to remain of several minds about the porn business for an impressive length of time. That is to say, he would like to be a key economic player at the beginning of its mid-’90s online distribution model (only a “middle man” on the credit-card side, thus the title), while remaining a blushing innocent when it comes to the nitty-gritty grind of smut’s production. Much later, while still swearing that he’s not a pornographer, Wilson’s character decides to date a Webcam starlet after separating from the mother of his children. I think this is called having it several ways, though the movie isn’t much interested in helping us keep track.

This is the sort of film in which an overalls-clad farmer from central casting gets conked on the head with a frying pan before a terrorist in Afghanistan is targeted for death via smart-bomb explosion, and both for the same reason: their chronically bug-eyed, pratfall approach to masturbation. And that’s just in the expository bits, which merely employ actor-ish archetypes who have no dialogue. (There is lots of montage-style explaining of how the Internet and porn-delivery work, which is something of an odd choice for a film whose plot takes it as a given that these things are universally understood today.) And yet the other parts of the film—during which star actors actually try to speak to one another—manage to take an even more awkward approach to mood.

At one point, Wilson’s character is sitting with his Webcam-famous lover as she describes the many ways in which she is preferable to his wife. Naturally she soon comes around to a self-assessment of her genitals, which she deems to be “tighter and prettier” than the competition’s. Wilson, who doesn’t seem to be sure if he’s in a movie where he should recoil in horror or else giggle, splits the difference and deadpans that her description is “poetic.”

Elsewhere in this tale, the Russian mob also decides that it wants in on all this Web 1.0 action. Turns out their ransom would be easy enough for Wilson’s stupendously rich business associates to pay out, if only the two men at the heart of the online porn revolution (played with spastic glee by Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) could devote enough space in their cocaine-packed nostrils for oxygen to reach their brains. Then, a small child is kidnapped, which cues up some lessons that are in dire need of the characters’ (limited) aptitude for learning. The less said about the deus ex machina role played by an FBI agent, the better.

There might have been many discrete ways that the story of Middle Men could have been told: as a Faustian, cautionary tale for the technocratic age, as T&A-riddled, good-times camp, or as an action-packed drama with sympathetic characters. That Middle Men’s creative team decided to go for all three at once is at least of a piece with the radically libertine spirit of their subject matter. In the high-concept world of mainstream Hollywood cinema, the desire to be three very different kinds of movie at once must be almost as discouraged as being a filth fiend is in the civic realm. And yet, Middle Men—marooned in the just-give-us-AC-and-we-won’t-complain weeks of August’s lowered expectations—proudly professes its fervor for that which is narratively indeterminate. It’s a bold admission of forbidden love, but not the sort that’s likely to find a mass audience.

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