Wayne Wang's "The Center of the World" not only positions itself as a "Last Tango In Paris" for the new millennium, but also proves itself a worthy successor to that Bernardo Bertolucci groundbreaker.
Sure, it may not pack the same sexual wallop as the earlier film; it's a lot harder to shock film audiences today than it was in 1972. But the points it has to make about sexuality, emotion and identity are just as compelling.
Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) and Florence (Molly Parker) are two of the loneliest, most desperate people in town. He's a computer programming whiz who couldn't care less that he's about to make millions; she's a drummer for a local rock band who makes her real money doing lap dances at a place called Pandora's Box. Neither is what you would call fulfilled - professionally, emotionally or sexually.
They meet at a local coffee shop, and Richard is immediately attracted - by Molly's casual, hard-edged flirtatiousness, by the revelation of how she earns a paycheck and by the leopard-skin fabric he glimpses in her handbag. Sensing this as an opportunity to move his life in different and dangerous directions, he makes a proposition: Spend a weekend with me in Vegas, get $10,000.
Florence, aghast, insists she's not into having sex for money. But the offer gets the better of her, and she agrees - on condition he never kiss her on the mouth, they never complete the sexual act and she get her own room, with time reserved for herself.
He agrees and the two make for Vegas, for a weekend that's essentially "Pretty Woman" with an NC-17 rating (although "Center" is unrated, it warrants an adults-only tag). But complications quickly develop.
Richard, it becomes obvious, wants something to come of all this; he's never been this intimate with a woman before, either physically or psychically, and he wants more. And Florence, no matter how hard she tries to remain cold and aloof, senses something in this guy.
Their differences come into sharpest focus when Florence's similarly uninhibited friend, Jerri (Carla Gugino, as the polar opposite of the loving mom she plays in "Spy Kids"), shows up and spins her tale of woe. Richard's reaction to both it and to Jerri opens Florence's eyes that much wider.
Sarsgaard and Parker make for two convincing lost souls; both have been so busy disengaging themselves from the world that neither knows what to do when real emotion shows up. And while the film displays its share of skin, much of its power comes from the sheer blankness of their faces; as erotic as it may be to watch them have at one another, it's devastating to watch their shared inability to cope with life - and emotion - in the real world.
There's also something of a war being played out here - that's where the title comes from, as Richard and Florence debate where the "center" of the world is. He believes it's the human heart, where emotion rules; she, in language much more graphic than this, suggests it lies in a far less cerebral part of the body. For three days, they engage in a psychic tug-of-war over who's right.
Like "Tango," Wang's film also seeks to uncover whether sex without emotion is really possible, or worth the effort. And like Bertolucci's film, it suggests such a disconnection constitutes a path best avoided.
The Center of the World'
Starring Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker
Directed by Wayne Wang
Released by Artisan Entertainment
Unrated (Sex, language, nudity)
Running time 86 minutes
Sun score * * *