Directed by George Gallo
It's no longer a McLuhan-level insight to explain that mediums rub off on one another. Think of how talky Hollywood rom-coms in the 90s came to be directed with the staid nothingness of the TV sitcoms which seemed to own the decade; think of how the handheld digital video camera boom of the early aughts seemed to legitimize shaky, unfocused cinematography, all the way from The Blair Witch Project to Hannah Takes The Stairs. Sadly, we may have now reached the point where the internet, with its continual presentation of new, context-free pieces of information and almost non-sequitur rapid shifts for the sake of a few moments of "fresh" entertainment, is beginning to rub off on how movies are made. That is the sense one walks away from Middle Men with, a formulaic rise-to-the-top-and-down-and-sink-back-down-again flick from George Gallo, starring the dreadfully miscast Luke Wilson, who seems incapable of doing anything right these days.
Middle Men begins with a rapid montage of random men masturbating, women in skimpy outfits (and less) gyrating for the camera, and a voice-over from Wilson explaining how, in the 90s, he created a company that helped men jerk off easier. Utterly unhelpful to the film in any meaningful way (as in, say, establishing character or narrative in a more concrete fashion), this intro is not dissimilar from those Flash landing pages you would see so often in the late 90s, with a visually stimulating but wholly unnecessary Flash intro. Sadly, here there is no "skip" option. As the film becomes the story of both Texas businessman Jack Harris (Wilson) and LA computer geeks Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck (Gabriel Macht), the narrative continues to lurch with fits and starts from one scene to the next, guided artificially by Wilson's voice over, without ever progressing in an organic fashion. It's like a YouTube highlight reel of what should, in theory, be the most entertaining scenes of a longer film. The film's schizophrenia continues with its color palette, which goes from one end of the spectrum (gritty, washed-out for Wayne and Buck) to another (clean and bright for Harris' life) in a contrast so garish and obvious as to preclude any possibility of artistry. Another problem is Wilson, who is completely wrong for the role of a sharp, shrewd businessman—never believable in an impassioned state, he seems perpetually cursed to live in the realm of slightly aloof characters who are one step removed from their immediate surroundings.
Generally speaking, the film seems to try to hold our attention by throwing as many different elements as possible at us from one moment to the next: Russian mobsters, a sleazy lawyer (James Caan—who only serves to remind us that at one point, he and Wilson made a film called Bottle Rocket together), an accidental murder, Harris leaving his wife for a 23-year-old porn star. While this highlight-reel structure is entertaining on a base level, it's ultimately unsatisfying. It's not dissimilar, perhaps appropriately, from the changes that have occurred in porn films themselves in the internet age. No longer do we get narrative feature porn flicks with actual storylines, absurd as they may be; instead, clip-aggregator sites like PornoTube have become the locus of porn viewing, which feature context-less sex much in the same way that Middle Men tries to present context-less set-piece sequences. In both cases, the entertainment presents the thing itself, squarely, without any of the contextualization and continuity that allows for a deeper understanding of what we're viewing. One is reminded of a comment David Foster Wallace made regarding television: roughly, "watching TV is like eating candy. For a little while, it feels great, until you realize your stomach hurts and you begin to wish you had had something nutritional."