The sun was shining at LAX as Chris Mallick lumbered up the stairs onto a private jet surrounded by a bevy of blondes. He fumbled with his crutches, awkwardly favoring his left leg—he'd recently broken his ankle and knee. But his physical injuries were the least of his worries.
A few weeks after the accident, his movie, Middle Men, had bombed. It had cost him $32 million and would earn a total of just $754,000 at the box office, and it hurt all the more because it was not just his first major production, but was all about him. One of the most brazen vanity projects in Hollywood history, the movie focuses on one man—based on Mallick—and his entrepreneurial genius, his business acumen, and his uncorruptible core, which allowed him to keep his moral bearing amid a sea of sleaze and filth. He'd cast Luke Wilson in the lead—as himself, essentially—and also enlisted James Caan and Giovanni Ribisi. And the movie was good—Variety called it "compelling [and] skillfully made."
Still, it was a flop of epic proportions. Confined to the couch, Mallick was hardly able to think about anything else. So as soon as he could hobble around, he decided to blow off some steam. He'd get through this—he still had ePassporte, the online-payment-processing business that was his cash cow. And he wasn't a newcomer to that industry. In fact, that was what Middle Men was about—how he'd made a fortune brokering online transactions for the porn industry.
At the top of the steps, he and his entourage of hot women settled into the cabin and took their seats—Cabo San Lucas was only two hours away. It was September 2, 2010, a little more than three weeks after Middle Men's disastrous opening weekend and swift flameout. And for the first time, it appeared things were okay.
But then the plane landed. As he posed for some holiday snapshots by the jet with the girls, he was bombarded with a series of frantic voice mails from the ePassporte offices. Apparently Visa had dissolved their business relationship. Mallick was stunned. His company could not function without the credit-card giant—ePassporte without Visa was like a car without wheels.
"You know when things are so bad they make you laugh?" he says. "I was like, 'You're fucking with me! Okay, is there a tsunami now? What's next?' "
A month later, ePassporte folded. That's when Mallick's problems stopped adding up and started multiplying. The company had roughly 100,000 account holders, and they wanted their money back—now. As the days turned into weeks, their fury lit up the adult-industry message boards: Why wasn't Mallick paying them back? In online posts, account holders' estimates—guesses, really—of the missing funds ranged from $20 million to $100 million. (Mallick suggests the number is more like $5 million.) Soon sites began to crop up with names like christophermallickscam.com, chrismallickfraud.com, and chrismallickswindler.com. The pictures of Mallick and his lady friends by the jet and in Cabo, which had been posted to a friend's Facebook page, appeared elsewhere on the Internet, further inciting the online mob.
Wealthy men are lured to Hollywood all the time by the promise of becoming producers. But few have the audacity to make a movie about themselves. When Mallick embarked on Middle Men, he was a little-known businessman with a questionable reputation—the film wasn't telling his story but rewriting it, scene by scene. If it was an effort at whitewashing, it backfired in grand fashion. Today, "Mallick" is slang for "swindle" in certain circles (Urban Dictionary's sample usage: "I can't believe my uncle fell for one of those Nigerian scams. They totally mallicked him out of $10,000"). A Google search for Chris Mallick returns page after page of accusations and vitriol—the link to the Wikipedia entry for his crowning achievement, Middle Men, is buried beneath a deluge of hate sites.
Mallick was on set for every take during the shooting of Middle Men.
Mallick is limping alone through the lobby of the Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica, California, when I meet him in December. He's older and heavier than his onscreen alter ego, as portrayed by Wilson, more tanned and bulbous. But he has charm: a gleaming smile with luminous white teeth, and a rich baritone voice that is at odds with how fast he speaks. After a torrent of pleasantries, he says finally, "Look, I know you want to talk about ePassporte. But my hope is that this interview will be more about the movie?" He shrugs and tilts his head hopefully.
Middle Men tells the story of a straitlaced Texas businessman named Jack Harris, who makes a fast fortune in the Wild West of online porn. He teams up with two degenerate drug addicts who have just created an algorithm to enable credit-card transactions over the Internet but who desperately need our hero to rescue the business from their incompetence. And so he does, but he has to endure the sordid backwash of the porn world in the process, when all he wants is to get back to his wife and kids in Houston. He can't leave because his partners—"a couple of idiots"—might run the business into the ground while he's gone. So, trapped in Los Angeles, he uneasily keeps earning a fortune, has a brief affair with a porn star, regrets it deeply, and ultimately returns to his wife, lesson learned—a classic hero's journey. His partners, meanwhile, get inadvertently mixed up in child pornography and cut him out of the company, out of sheer greed.
"It's about 80 percent true," Mallick says. "Luke Wilson's character arc is very close to mine. He's trying to do business in a sea full of truly crazy people."
Mallick did spend five years surrounded by XXX stars in L.A., while his wife looked after their four sons in Dallas, and admits he strayed—but only once. "That's all it takes." He shakes his head. "And I was so goddamn guilty."