Similar to last year's The Social Network, Middle Men offers another online phenomenon (this time the rise of internet porn) as the basis for a tale of greed, deception and the vast financial rewards to be reaped from it all (all at the cost of everything else, of course).
It's a sprightly, if derivative yarn which, seemingly due to studio politics, is making its debut in the usually quality-bereft DTV world. While not quite up there with the David Fincher's aforementioned zeitgeist-encapsulating audience and critic favourite, it's certainly worthy of a big-screen release and well worth a viewing.
Set in the early noughties, a beefed-up Luke Wilson stars as devoted family man and astute business advisor, Jack Harris. Following a string of successful ventures he's spearheaded, he is offered the chance to help a couple of .com entrepreneurs who have inadvertently launched the first pay-per-view online porn site. Played by Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi, the two are clueless when it comes to the business end of things, and through their drug-addled and hopelessly naive behaviour, they owe a wedge of money to the Russian mafia who are looking for a sizable return. Harris' initial attempts to smooth things over result in an accidental death and a sloppy cover-up, but soon he's back on track and the trio begin to make untold riches from the nation's obsession with downloading wrist fodder.
Like all good rags to riches tales, things inevitably begin to slide as Harris grows increasingly intoxicated by the lifestyle and trades in his remarkably supportive wife for a younger model (in the shapely form of Laura Ramsey's twentysomething online porn starlet). He also finds himself having to deal with an utterly corrupt solicitor (James Caan), while the belligerent Russians make their presence felt once again and even the FBI become entangled in it all.
Sporting the kind of fast-paced, kinetic editing, freeze-frame style as typified by the Goodfellas/Casino era Scorsese and Boogie Nights, Middle Men could hardly be considered original in both style and substance, but like those film it attempts to emulate, the energy and subject matter (enlivened by some strong performances) really helps to deliver a thoroughly watchable and often entertaining biopic. Wilson (who also delivers the cynical and world-weary Ray Liotta-esque voice-over throughout) offers one of the more memorable performance of his low-key career, while Ribisi (at his wiry best) and Macht are often very funny and equally annoying as they continually threaten to undo all the good work that their business partner has managed to perform, much to his chagrin. A roster of solid supporting actors (including the likes of Kevin Pollak and Robert Forster) manage to really shine in their limited onscreen time, and even Kelsey Grammer (who crops up in a tiny role of an easily-corruptible politician) is surprisingly memorable.
What lets the film down a little is director George Gallo's need to often cram in unnecessary visual flourishes. His insistence on using a number of those now terribly clichéd CSI-style abstract-y flashbacks stick out like a sore thumb, and it's almost as if he doesn't have faith in the inherently fascinating story he's trying to tell. Wilson's family fall-out is glossed over too, and the emotional ramifications are never satisfyingly captured or dealt with.
Nevertheless, this is clearly a cut above the types of films which are normally associated with the small screen afterlife, and while it may not reach the dizzying heights of those grander features it models itself on (there's even the obligatory Rolling Stones number towards the end as events are being wrapped up) this is still a fun and entertaining glimpse into the development of a clandestine culture which, right or wrong, is undeniably a huge and ever-growing part of modern society.