Middle Men; R, 105 minutes; Opening Friday


 For every one person who asks what people did before the Internet with regard to restaurant reviews or Google Maps, at least 10 more are wondering the same thing with regard to porn. Does that mean it’s time for a movie about how Internet porn as we know it came to be? Nah. But here’s Middle Men anyway. Reportedly based on stuff that actually happened to one of its producers, it also has the more important credential of proclivity for groping opportunism—and, accordingly, an aura of self-deluded sleaze.

With Giovanni Ribisi and Luke Wilson, Middle Men kicks off the era of ’90s nostalgia in this dramatization of the dawn of Internet pornography.

It hinges on Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht as an overcoked (and overacted) dum-dee duo from the ’90s, figuring out together how to put porn online and get people to pay for it by credit card. But immediate wealth leads to trouble with the Russian mob, so their shyster lawyer James Caan hooks them up with business-fixer Luke Wilson, a family man from Texas whom they promptly corrupt. 

Wilson’s narration fills our ears with his accent-denuded drawl and situates his character as the protagonist, a cheeky rebuke to his constant rationalizing that he’s just a middle man. (Hey, hotel owners have porn available in all their rooms, but we don’t think of them as peddlers of smut, do we? Wait, do we?) Notwithstanding the denial problem, he’s got a good head for business, although where that came from is anyone’s guess. He’s also got a loyal and gorgeous gingham-picnic wife, played by Jacinda Barrett. But then the porn performer played by Laura Ramsay catches his eye, and the center cannot hold. 

Middle Men doesn’t quite capitalize on the narrowness of Wilson’s range, which seems more like inscrutability than tasteful restraint. Plus: Even more annoying than the forced banter between quarrelsome druggy idiots, which is pretty annoying, is the bogus chastity. It’s just not right for a movie about the proliferation of hardcore to seem so coyly soft-pedaled.

Directed and co-written by George Gallo, who wrote Midnight Run and nothing else nearly as good, Middle Men must at least be applauded for its rare unity of content and style: It’s exactly as tawdry and disposable as a masturbation-aid snapshot still lingering on your laptop screen just after the fact. Even clearing your browser history won’t fully undo it.

But there are two reasons why Middle Men might be onto something: It seems more unctuous than erotic. And it channels the period in which it’s set by ripping off that era’s movie milestones, like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights—not to mention Bottle Rocket, the original cons-and-morons caper vehicle for Luke Wilson and James Caan. Cue the classic movie-soundtrack rock.