The Center of the World

                It seems that every generation has one film that more or less
        captures the sexual Zeitgeist. While which movie is a debatable issue,
        one could argue that for the 1960s it was
I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW),
        in the 70s it was
LAST TANGO IN PARIS, and the 80s, 9 ½ WEEKS.
        The 1990s is a bit more problematic, in part due to the further fractionation
        of society brought about by the growth of the Internet and other home
        entertainment products. (One might offer up the David Cronenberg-directed
          CRASH, but that hardly touched the mainstream in the same way as the
        others cited.) By the time the 20th Century died out, porn was moving
        closer to the mainstream and sex was less and less taboo. Perhaps the 90s
        finally has its movie (albeit a couple of years late) in the latest from director
        Wayne Wang:
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD.

                It's already a period piece as the film's main character is a slacker
        computer geek whose company is about to go public. Already wealthy,
        Richard Longman (embodied with puppyish charm by Peter Sarsgaard)
        stands to make even more money in the stock market. Slightly immature
        and lacking in developed social skills, Richard encounters Florence (Molly
        Parker) at a coffee shop and becomes intrigued by her looks. When she
        tells him that she works as a stripper to earn cash that allows her to pursue
        her real career of music, he is even more intrigued. Of course, Richard has
        to check out her act, resulting in his becoming even more smitten.

                Since he's wallowing in cash, Richard offers Florence a proposition:        
        a weekend in Las Vegas. At first, she refuses but the prospect of some
        quick cash ($10,000) makes her reconsider and she agrees, but with ground
        rules. They will meet only between the hours of 10pm and 2am, there will
        be no penetration and emotions are to be kept in check. It is to be strictly
        a business arrangement. This being a movie, though, the audience just
        knows that each of her conditions will eventually erode away.

                Once settled in their Vegas suite, Richard waits for the appropriate
        hour. Wang and his co-writers Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt and Miranda July
        (credited as Ellen Benjamin Wong) take pains to demonstrate Florence's
        approach to her job. Each step of the way, it is like an actress preparing
        for a stage entrance, from the way she applies her makeup to her choice
        of clothing. The sex scenes are titillating but there's a remoteness to them,
        partly because of the natural lighting and handheld camerawork of director
        of photography Mauro Fiore.
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD was shot on
        digital video and the sometimes grainy quality of the picture doesn't lend
        itself to romance or fantasy. Undoubtedly Wang was going for a more
        documentary feel to the film, but that undercuts some of the tension
        and power of the piece.

                It perhaps also doesn't help that the two main characters are merely
        variations on themes audiences have seen many, many times before.
        Florence is the seemingly hard-bitten working girl who has a sensitive
        side. Richard is the geek with too much money who doesn't understand
        or appreciate his power until backed into a corner, at which time he commits
        a heinous action. These are literary archetypes that aren't fully fleshed-out
        characters, no matter how hard the actors try to breathe life into them.
        Indeed, Sarsgaard and Parker should be commended for the brave, gutsy
        move of tackling this project. Both have proven their mettle in other films
        and undoubtedly will go on to do so again. The delicately attractive Parker
        graced several fine films including
SUNSHINE and WONDERLAND and
        she has already demonstrated her fearlessness in undertaking roles that
        are far from the mainstream, chiefly her necrophiliac in
KISSED.
        Sarsgaard made an auspicious debut as Leonardo DiCaprio's rival in
        love in
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and truly came into his own
        with his multi-layered portrait of a Midwestern redneck in
BOYS DON'T CRY.
        Here, both actors make a game attempt, willingly exposing themselves
        (although body doubles were used in some scenes).        

                The troublesome screenplay creates a world that only seems able
        to accommodate Richard and Florence. Except for Carla Gugino, who plays
        a girlfriend of Florence's, none of the supporting characters even register,
        let alone contribute anything to the proceedings. With all due respect to
        Ms. Parker and Mr. Sarsgaard, the characters of Florence and Richard
        aren't terribly interesting, nor is their plight. One may get caught up in
        the story as it is unfolding (Wang does know how to tell a story), but
        they aren't strong enough to leave a lasting impression. They are very
        different people who each possess a unique view as to where that title
        spot exists. (Let's just say that it's tied to their respective lines of
        employment.)

                Not quite a romance, not quite porn,
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
        may actually be a fitting summation of the 1990s, a decade when things
        got out of control and were messy.


                             
Rating:               C        
                                   MPAA Rating:     None (sexual situation, nudity, profanity)
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.