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Middle Men: Casino 2 – The Porno Story

By Preston Garrett · August 10, 2010

Pornography.  On the internet.  Maybe with the exception of TSL, it’s hard to imagine that the internet was invented for anything else.  Ever since I was a 12-year-old kid, dialing up on AOL, thinking that AOL was THE internet, I was aware that the internet was a seedy underbelly of, what my childhood pastor referred to as “a festering wound of lust, fire, and brimstone.”  

Yeah, the internet has come a long way since 1997, but what so many of us conservative hootenannies fail to do is give porn props where props are due.  Without internet porn you couldn’t order your favorite Bible verse calendar with your Discover card off your favorite God-fearing website; or your million thread bedsheets from that over-priced chic lifestyle improvement website that makes me want to vomit with your Platinum Visa card; or even discounted buy-in-bulk toothpaste from some overstock website with your boss’s American Express card.  The porn industry was the first to utilize credit card payment technology over the internet – the “middle man” service, if you will.  That’s not to say someone wouldn’t have figured out anyway… but that’s simply not how it happened.

If you haven’t guessed already, this what Middle Men is all about, the latest film from writer/director George Gallo (co-written by Andy Weiss.)  Going into this film, I definitely had low expectations for a few reasons.

1) I don’t buy Luke Wilson as a smooth operating, savvy businessman dabbling in pornography.

2) The story doesn’t seem quite that “old” enough to deem making a movie about it yet (albeit, this is a loose take on a true story, and there’s also the hypocrisy behind this statement since I can’t wait to see The Social Network.)

3) There’s one movie about porn that I like, and that movie is called Boogie Nights.

But upon seeing Middle Men, I was pleasantly surprised.  Gallo actually took this pretty ridiculous true-ish story and injected it with charm and personality.  In so many words, it wasn’t just a bunch of boobs on screen with silly quips to the effect of, “You left a check for $2 million under a candy bar,” though this was indeed in the film.

Instead Gallo did something that so many filmmakers seem to do anymore, but with a tinge of more success.  He was a ripoff artist.  Now, I’m not saying that he was a blatant plagiarist or anything like that… he just ripped off Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s storytelling style like nobody’s business.  But before I go further with that…

The story:

Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) was a guy who always did the right thing, even if it meant standing at the back of the tax bracket line.  Until one day he got an offer from a struggling friend in Los Angeles to help reinvigorate his nightclub business.  Since it’s a huge payday, Jack reluctantly accepts the offer, commuting from Houston to L.A. on an exhausting basis.  

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, 2 cocaine and booze addled buddies, Wayne Beering and Buck Dolby (played hilariously by Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht respectively) scheme in their putrid apartment.  Their scheming: to find a way to reinvent the internet, and monetize it in the process.  Being that Buck was an engineer for NASA who was asked to leave the program due to his cocaine and free fall simulator addictions, there is indeed genius behind this dynamic duo.

Finally one night (whilst on a cocaine binge, of course), Wayne is suddenly enlightened and decides there need to be pornography on the internet, so he scans some smut rags and posts them to a URL.  Buck, in a sweeping stroke of temporary clarity, pounds out the code that would change the way business was done on the internet – he writes the program to facilitate credit card transactions.

From here, Wayne and Buck quickly make way too much money, and go blow it all on blow.  And hookers.  And booze.  Etc.  Then through an attorney they all have in common, Jack (Wilson) is connceted with Wayne and Buck to help legitimize their business.  Why, you ask?  Because their only investors just happen to be the Russian mob.  Fame, fortune, murder, and pornography ensues.

Again, the story is charming enough, and also surprisingly informative when it comes to the inner workings of third party transactions (because I know everyone is just so totally super amped to know about that stuff.)  Yet Middle Men is troubled, and it’s not just because I DIDN’T buy Luke Wilson as a savvy businessman dabbling in the porn industry.  

Gallo simply doesn’t have his own since of style honed.  Middle Men is essentially the bastard child of Casino, circa the information age, in particular, sweeping cutaway dolly shots that unfold under jaded Voice Over.  Note that Scorsese has perfected this visual storytelling device to great effect, and yes, there have been numerous copycats over the years (see the prologue sequence to Magnolia, though Paul Thomas Anderson made this his own… but without Scorsese’s influence this never would have happened.)  

Though these are critiques, I applaud Gallo for his taste – he’s certainly mimicking a great filmmaker, and the story he’s telling is interesting.  But with the miscast of Luke Wilson and the lack of truly original storytelling, Middle Men is far from swimming in the same pond as Casino.  I honestly imagine that this film had an early draft of the script that was much more epic on the level of Casino and films within the same genre, but that the studio simply saw the porn storyline and decided to exploit it for a more mass marketable frat-tastic audience.

The caveat to all this – Middle Men is enjoyable.  I actually learned something.  It’s popcorn in your mouth, a little history for your brain, and not quite worth the ticket price.  Note: I think George Gallo is definitely a director to watch.  He just needs the right material, the producer to give him the confidence he needs, and casting director to say “hell no” to Luke WIlson in roles like these (I’m pretty sure Luke Wilson is only supposed to work with Wes Anderson – just saying.)  I have that Gallo could end up being a strong cinematic voice some years from now.  Next project please, Mr. Gallo.

2.5 out of 4 ambiguously stained socks.