Friday April 20, 2001
Wayne Wang's "The Center of the World" is permeated with sadness as a young man (Peter Sarsgaard) and a young woman (Molly Parker) become caught up in a conflict involving emotion, sex and money. Once again, Las Vegas becomes the setting for bleak, deluded romance.
Florence soon realizes she's in for a struggle because Richard is boyishly attractive and sensitive. She does allow him to see her during the day and they do start kissing, with Florence pulling back, saying "We've got to stick to the rules."
But what Florence allows within those rules results in steamy, teasing erotica, or to put it more plainly, soft-core porn. It seems safe to say that broad-minded adults will not be unduly thrown by what Wang depicts. Florence's resolve in holding onto her self-respect inspires a certain admiration, but she's so relentlessly tantalizing and exceedingly permissive that you can't also help but think she's kidding herself, as her friend--and apparent sometime lover--Jerri (Carla Gugino) observes. Richard's emotional response inspires pathos when he implores Florence to look beyond the cash nexus and remember that they're people--"and people have feelings." But can Florence dare to allow herself to be vulnerable to her emotions--to find out if she could start caring for Richard as rapidly as he's caring for her, which may merely be a response to the fantasy temptress Florence has so expertly projected? He could be out of her life in a couple of days for all his declarations of love. Or, more important, could he care for her as much as he says he does if he did get to know her? For all her hauteur, Florence may well be as emotionally vulnerable and immature as Richard.
And that cuts to the heart of this sleek, elegant film with a screenplay credited to the pseudonymous Ellen Benjamin Wong; its writers actually are Wang, Miranda July, Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster. With Auster, Wang made the memorable back-to-back "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face" in 1995. Wang has said he was fascinated with the connection between the high-tech community of the San Francisco Bay Area (where he lives) and its many strip clubs.
At any rate, "The Center of the World's" heavy-duty sex play is not balanced by a depth of characterization. We never really get to know much about Florence, and the notion of Richard as a creature of Internet sex who has trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality is not developed very far, although there are times when you have to wonder if Florence and his trip to Vegas are happening entirely in his imagination, triggered by what he's watching on a computer screen. (Richard sees himself at the center of the world when he's surrounded by his computer screens, while Florence has a decidedly more basic idea of where that center is.) There's a puritanical strain in the film, as is so often the case with American films that push the envelope in erotica. It's the old business of seeing how far you can go in as many ways imaginable without going the distance, which describes Florence as much as it does the film itself. Furthermore, the more sex the film reveals and suggests, the more miserable its people become, as if punishment for apparently mutual pleasure were in order. All this sadness becomes so depressing to watch, testing the limits of the patience of even a viewer prepared to take Wang's underlying concerns seriously. There comes a point in "The Center of the World" when it seems that watching that Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee video might just be more rewarding--and surely less pretentious.
The Center of the World, 2001. Unrated. An Artisan Entertainment presentation. Director Wayne Wang. Producers Peter Newman, Wang. Executive producers Greg Johnson, Ira Deutchman. Screenplay "Ellen Benjamin Wong" (Wayne Wang, Miranda July, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt). Cinematographer Mauro Fiore. Editor Lee Percy. Music supervisor Deva Anderson. Costumes Sophie de Rakoff Carbonelli. Production designer Donald Graham Burt. Art director Diana Kunce. Set decorator Lydia Simon. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. Peter Sarsgaard as Richard Longman. Molly Parker as Florence. Carla Gugino as Jerri. Balthazar Getty as Brian Pivano.