Porn (Middle Men) or Pills (Life During Wartime)? 

Whatever gets you through the night.

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Middle Men attempts to solve a summer-movie marketing dilemma: How to make a typical young men's dumb-and-dumber comedy — outfitted with over-the-top drug use, slapstick violence, and carloads o' hookers — that also contains enough real-world cred to create the illusion that it's actually about something more than just dope, mayhem, and hos?

I can hear the objections: "Who needs real-world credibility? What is this, a documentary? If we wanted current affairs we'd subscribe to The Economist." And it's true — young-male multiplex hits like The Hangover, Pineapple Express, and Get Him to the Greek didn't bother linking their stoned shenanigans with anything particularly complicated, and they sold tons of tickets. Why couldn't Middle Men just keep it simple and do the same?

Filmmaker George Gallo, the writer-producer-director who had a hand in Wise Guys, Midnight Run, the Michael Bay Bad Boys, and other down-to-earth, character-driven, light-dramatic actioners, obviously wanted more. Gallo is from the old school. He wants the manic energy in his films to connect to something substantial. Something at the confluence of science, sex, and geysers of money. Like Internet porn.

And so Middle Men is sort of a Wall Street Journal business feature story, if Wall Street Journal features were about nerds who neglected to get a job and spent their days masturbating in front of their computer screens, and then suddenly struck it rich. Director/co-writer Gallo and writing partner Andy Weiss owe an even bigger debt to Martin Scorsese. The entire structure of the film is lifted from GoodFellas, down to the voiceover narration by Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), the man who enables the porn-ification of the Internet.

As the story would have it, a couple of drug-impaired Los Angeles couch potatoes named Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht) hit on the idea while bemoaning the lack of jerk-off material on the newly operational Internet, circa 1997. Stoned as they are, Wayne and Buck know enough about computers to rig a web site with a pay perimeter, charging for access to "adult" content.

The money begins to roll in and new problems surface: Where to get fresh content to meet the demand, and how to handle credit-card transactions on the web? For the content, they make the mistake of going to a Russian gangster named Nikita Sokoloff (the dependable Rade Serbedzija), who owns an LA strip club. For the merchandising and billing expertise, they hook up with businessman Jack, who instantly flies to the coast, leaving his wife and children behind in Texas. Stand by for broken noses and mountains of cash.

Wilson and Laura Ramsey, who plays porn star Audrey Downs, Jack's girlfriend in the biz, are the best things about Middle Men. The two actors hit the right note of absurdity and loosey-goosey-ness crossed with stone-cold competence, à la Charlie Wilson's War. Audrey's pay-per-view web site is the source of one of the film's most successful little riffs. Apparently an Al-Qaeda terrorist was such a fan of Audrey that he shared her site with his fellow conspirators — US intelligence found out and used their electric footprints to direct missile attacks. The threat of death is essential to the scant humor this movie manufactures.

Ribisi's raging coke-head mannerisms as Wayne the accidental tycoon are amusing only the first ten or twelve times. Ditto James Caan's recycled gangster patter as Jerry Haggerty the fixer lawyer. Robert Forster, another veteran tough guy, puts in a brief but welcome appearance as a Chicago hit man in flashback. In fact, Gallo goes out of his way to use character actors from his Eighties-Nineties heyday, the Midnight Run years — Kevin Pollak, John Ashton, Kelsey Grammer, Martin Kove, Christopher McDonald. It's sort of a reunion. But with the GoodFellas framework, we're all the more forcibly reminded of the absence of Scorsese and De Niro.

Wayne and Buck discover the FBI is an even more dangerous business partner than the Russians. The politicians, nosy neighbors, and citizens who complain about pornography are smothered in piles of hundred-dollar bills. There's too much Scorsese-izing, and all the characters with the exception of Wilson and Ramsey's illicit lovers look as if they were drawn by a fifteen-year-old. Other than that, Middle Men fills in a slot as an amiable late-summer popcorn pusher in the plexes. Anything to get the customers away from their tiny screens.

Todd Solondz may be the most striking example of a filmmaker who impresses audiences with his talent — small audiences, granted, who consider themselves smart, urban, and sophisticated — yet consistently leaves them dissatisfied. He's a marvelous creator of miserable, neurotic characters — the sort that urban sophisticates love to chat about over coffee after the movie — but has trouble with things like story arcs and sustained narrative. We forgive him because his characters' pain is so much fun to watch. That is, he turns melodramatic liability into a comic asset. You could say it's part of his charm.

Solondz's latest, Life During Wartime, is billed as a sequel of sorts to his 1998 drama Happiness, but it's not necessary to know anything about the older film in order to enjoy squeezing out the bitter juice.

We're presented with three unhappy sisters. Joy (petite, morose Shirley Henderson) channels her angst into an odd relationship with an ex-con named Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), and is haunted by the ghost of her former boyfriend Andy (played by Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman). Her sister Trish (the wonderful Allison Janney) is desperately trying to start a new life for herself by dating a shnook named Harvey (Michael Lerner), but Trish's young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), the mensch of the piece, sees through the pretense. Joy and Trish live in Florida. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, their showbiz sister Helen (comeback kid Ally Sheedy) dissolves in a pool of drugs and self-pity.

Pills all around. Intense self-loathing, extended to others. Classical karaoke. The "Israel" rationale for voting Republican. Terrorism fears. Trish's ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), a sex offender with a pedophilia problem, gets out of prison and their older son Billy (Chris Marquette) tries to reunite with him. Charlotte Rampling, of all actors, shows up as a kind of cruising cocktail-lounge vampire. The characters march around in a circle and we learn one important thing: Stay away from hotels and restaurants in Florida.

Life During Wartime
Rated NR · 96 min. · 2010
Official Site: www.wercwerkworks.com/projects/lifeduringwartime
Director: Todd Solondz
Writer: Todd Solondz
Producer: Derrick Tseng and Christine K. Walker
Cast: Ally Sheedy, Ciarán Hinds, Allison Janney, Chris Marquette, Gaby Hoffmann, Paul Reubens, Shirley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams
Middle Men
Rated R · 105 min. · 2010
Official Site: www.middlemenmovie.com
Director: George Gallo
Writer: George Gallo and Andy Weiss
Producer: Christopher Mallick, William Sherak, Jason Shuman and Michael Weiss
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Luke Wilson, James Caan, Gabriel Macht, Terry Crews, Christopher McDonald, Laura Ramsey, Kelsey Grammer, Jacinda Barrett and Rade Serbedzija

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