A section in the end credits for "Middle Men" asserts that, although it was inspired by a true story, the film is, in fact, a work of fiction. I've tended to find this annoying, especially in relation to horror movies. In the case of "Middle Men," however, the assertion fascinates me, for Christopher Mallick, the film's producer, has claimed that much of what we see - 80%, apparently - is based on his own experiences. A former chief executive of Paycom, the Texas-born entrepreneur was a key player in bringing the adult entertainment industry to the internet, pioneering the technology that makes online purchases, especially monthly memberships to porn sites, easy and secure. In essence, he was a middle man. His efforts have paid off; according to a set of statistics published by Jerry Ropelato in 2006, the annual revenue of internet porn was nearly $3 billion in the United States alone. I have no doubt that the rate has increased since then.
As to how much of this film is true, as to what facts have been embellished or altered or altogether made up, I obviously have no way of knowing. That, of course, only makes it that much more irresistible. In the film, Mallick is reinterpreted as Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), who begins as a respectable and competent businessman, having a knack for talking and negotiating with people of every flavor, including mobsters that enjoy busting people's kneecaps with baseball bats. Sometime between the mid to late 1990s, he becomes involved with Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht), two Los Angeles cokeheads who realized they could build an empire by scanning dirty pictures onto their computer, posting them on the internet, and selling them for $9.99. They have absolutely no business sense and are basically idiots, and never mind that Dolby was formerly a rocket scientist and has an IQ of 183.
What begins as a straight-and-narrow handling of affairs quickly escalates into something grander, Harris, Beering, and Dobly becoming wealthy entrepreneurs over the space of five years. It also becomes far more dangerous, Beering and Dolby having gotten involved with a Russian mobster (Rade erbedzija); he owns a strip club, you see, and they generate new content for their site by posting videos and photos of his girls. You know how it is with mobsters. They want their cut of the profits pronto. But you also know how it is with guys like Beering and Dolby. They blow off all their money on drugs. They don't know any better, not even when their faces are smashed in or their heads are shoved into toilets.
Harris, meanwhile, will have to use his business smarts to contend with a shady Las Vegas lawyer (James Caan), a spiteful young adult actress he has fallen in love with (Laura Ramsey), and a team of federal agents, led by Kevin Pollack, who want to use the adult actress as a weapon against international terrorism (and of all the movies I've ever seen, this is definitely a new one for me). He must also come to terms with the fact that he still has a family back home in Texas, and that, despite his wealth affording them the good life, he hasn't been there for him. Matters are complicated even further when Beering and Dolby, never able to think before they act, learn that they have unknowingly been exploiting underage models.
I grant you that this is a lot to take in. The director and co-writer George Gallo is reported to have written an expletive followed by the words, "keep up," on the front page of the screenplay as a reminder that, should the audience leave the theater for even a minute, they will miss something important. I don't particularly agree with the first part of his mantra (which I can't repeat), but the second part is spot on. You have to keep up. The thing is, that shouldn't be a problem; this movie is so well structured, so finely acted, and so cleverly written that you're libel to get hooked within the first ten minutes. It plays like a cross between "Boogie Nights" and a Guy Ritchie film, seamlessly interweaving comedy, crime, and mystery into a character-driven plot, the Harris character serving not only as the film's narrator and main player, but also as the emotional center.
Indeed, there is something oddly compelling about Jack Harris, the way an all-around respectable guy can allow himself to be so corrupted by the pursuit of the American Dream. His continuous narration is filled with regret, but there's also a certain dry, sardonic twist to his words, as if to suggest that the whole thing is utterly ridiculous. Well, it IS utterly ridiculous. And yet, a lot of it is true - if you're willing to take Christopher Mallick's word for it, that is. That blurring of fact and fiction, that inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, is part of why "Middle Men" was so enjoyable for me. That, and the fact that it's simply a fine movie. I liked the humor. I liked the intrigue. I liked the performances. And I really liked the screenplay; not only is it founded on an engaging premise, it's also refreshingly honest about what the internet really is for.