MIDDLE MEN — “It takes no creative energy or thought to villainize the porn industry!”

MIDDLE MEN

Directed by George Gallo

Run Time 112 minutes

STARRING
Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Mact, James Caan, Jacinda Barrett, Kevin Pollak, Laura Ramsey, Rade Serbedzija, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammar

Luke Wilson, you and your brother Owen mystify me. You both seem so capable of great things, and at least Owen has achieved them on several occasions. Yes, I know you were in The Royal Tenenbaums, but Luke co-wrote the thing, and though you were pretty good, Owen was memorable and frankly outstanding. I forgot you were in it until Maxxx Peters reminded me. And while both you and your brother make bizarre (and just BAD) choices from time to time, you, Luke, always seem to be perched on the edge of doing something at least worthwhile but never achieving greatness.

For instance, when I first heard about your recent movie, Middle Men, wherein you play one of the guys who turned the internet into the epicenter of porn purchases, and who thereby changed the face of the known universe in the 1990s, I thought, “This has some potential.” I mean, what a great story! Whoever it was that realized financial transactions could be completed discreetly online, thereby eliminating the need for sticky-floor peep-show stores and print smut rags forever, has got to be something of an interesting individual. And though you, Luke Wilson, are one of America’s great white-bread, vanilla, boring-as-hell actors, you’ve got that seed of potential in you. I can see it. And if you’ve got even one ounce of the quirky charm your brother sometimes shows himself to possess, which one would hope is in the genes, this could be a fascinating movie.

But once again, Luke Wilson, as in so many times past (like when you started showing up all bloaty-faced in those AT&T commercials… god, what the hell was going on there? if you’re gonna be a spokesperson, take it from our spokestar Lexi Love, you’ve gotta look good while doing it), you disappointed me. And you know, I shouldn’t blame this on you, Luke. You were ok, and I don’t know that there are many actors out there who could have taken the crap role you were given in this crap movie and made gold out of it. Granted, this was one of those “Based On A True Story” Hollywood monstrosities, where the line between what actually happened and what some weirdly conservative Hollywood brass thought would sell better in middle America isn’t blurred so much as erased. So I doubt that you had much say over anything that happened in this train wreck of a movie, Luke, but let me tell you how I see what must have happened at every miniscule step of the creative process for this steaming pile of Hollywood horse dookie.

I imagine that the screenwriter looked at the “true story” he was working with and, depending on how much of this is a true story, saw in the following veritable cornucopia of fodder for a dirty, funny romp of a Guy-Ritchie-esque dark farce: 1) porn, 2) drugs, 3) infidelity, 4) Russian mobsters, 5) murder, 6) corruption, 7) fist-fights, 8) porn stars,  9) porn, and 10) inexhaustible wealth. These are ten (yes, porn counts as two here) building blocks to a movie that could not possibly fail. These are the ten building blocks that most decent writers wish they could work into one story that makes any kind of sense, and here was that very story coming to him just waiting to be made into a film. This would set him up for life.

The screenwriter went to work turning this juicy story into a Hollywood gold mine. I imagine the original script, even if written by an idiot, had to be pretty entertaining. But as always happens somewhere along the line when big-budget movies are being made, a Producer had to rear his ugly head and take a look at the script. Said producer, I imagine, read it from front to back, shaking his head and making clucking noises with his tongue throughout, before roaring, “What is this?? You’re writing about a bunch of hedonistic murderers with drug problems and sex addictions in the porn industry?? And you’re being sympathetic with these degenerates?? We’ve got investors on this project! Decent, upstanding members of society with wives and children! We can’t show them this swill or they’ll cut all their funding and blacklist us!”

Over the course of the next six months or so, I imagine the poor screenwriter, then the director, then the actors, being forced to whittle down their artistic vision for telling a deliciously filthy tale into a depressed attempt to maintain some kind of plot while turning the main character from a completely lovable egomaniac (and sex maniac) into a “family man” with no interest in breast implants or riches who gets more or less roped into helping out some coke fiends who have gotten in over their head with drugs, sex, and the Russian mafia, and ends up at the top of the porn world before crashing and burning because, obviously, anyone who espouses traditional American values cannot possibly be involved in porn in a responsible or even consciously chosen way. I imagine this writer watching his piece of cinematic art being eroded down into a purely fictional set of preconceived Wonderbread American notions about morality and sex and money, whittled away to a parody of its former self to please the investors and conservatives, guaranteed to make money.

Our hero is now, rather than a nuanced human being, be the only character in the whole of the multi-billion dollar porn industry who isn’t a broken shell of a human being with semen for brains, and that’s the only way anyone in the American movie-going public will ever like him. He’s be unwittingly involved in a murder that he’s forced to cover up by circumstance — not his own agency, since porn exploits everyone — and thus compelled to stay in the porn industry in order to protect his name. He’s such a great guy, though, that nobody suspects him or even prosecutes him for this murder when it’s found out, and the audience is so taken with his guy-next-door persona that they don’t notice his character makes absolutely no sense as a human being. And who, the Producer asked himself, can we sucker into playing such a ridiculous parody of a character by telling him that it’s a complex role in a wild, wacky adventure of a sex-drenched Hollywood blockbuster? Who’s got just enough potential to play this part the way it was originally written, but just enough desperation that he will play the part the way we’ve watered it down?

Luke Wilson. Poor Luke Wilson, who just wants to get a good script in his hands and maybe prove us all wrong, goddammit.

And you fell for it, didn’t you, Luke? I bet there were some deleted scenes where your character really got to cut loose and show his humanity, his dirtiness, his confusion, his existential pain. I bet there was some semblance of a man who had enough of a brain to make a conscious decision to get involved in the world’s biggest-titted cash cow. I bet there was an understanding of the porn industry, or at least enough of one that Middle Men didn’t have to be a stupid repetition of all the things the media’s been telling us about porn as the embodiment of the decline of American morality. I bet somewhere under there, there was a plea for compassion and empathy. I bet somewhere, at the very beginning, there was a real story. But it’s sure not in Middle Men anymore, and it’s a damn shame.

It takes no creative energy or thought to villainize the porn industry while letting “the rest of us,” embodied in Luke Wilson’s simple smile, feel morally superior to something we don’t understand. It takes real genius, real love, to write a movie that allows its characters to be nuanced and layered and be interested in pornography without being drug addicts, mobsters, traumatized abuse victims, or scumbag lawyers and politicians. And it’s a shame Middle Men didn’t see fit to even try. I really think you did, though, Luke. I like you. I just really hate your producer.

—Miss Lagsalot

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