The Center of the World
Could there be any sexual imagination duller and more pathetic than that of a guy who spends 80 hours a week glued to multiple computer screens? Hardly, director Wayne Wang (Smoke) posits in The Center of the World. The film's disheveled protagonist, Richard (Boys Don't Cry's Peter Sarsgaard), is one of those crazy-rich Silicon Valley bachelors, a computer engineer who owns 18 percent of a company that seems to have taken over 95 percent of his life. He meets Florence (Sunshine's Molly Parker), a stripper who sidelines as a drummer in an alternative-rock band, and offers her $10,000 to spend a long weekend with him in a Las Vegas hotel. She agrees, under certain conditions: no kissing, no penetration, she only has to hang out with him from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and she get her own room.
It's hard to believe this setup, and even harder to believe it could result in anything remotely erotic or romantic between these two social misfits. This isn't Pretty Woman--it's more like Pretty Vacant Woman, a kind of cautionary tale about modern alienation. It's suggested, after myriad yawn-inducing soft-core scenes (some of which involve hot sauce and ice cubes, the key ingredients to the computer guy's "wildest" fantasy, which Florence informs him is "what the Chinese call 'fire and ice'"), that Richard and Florence start falling for each other, but nothing could be less convincing. Well, that's not entirely true: Another long shot is that someone as seemingly affable, interesting, cute, and rich as Richard wouldn't have chicks swarming all over him. Or that Parker's Florence, a silicone-free beanpole with the freckle-faced, wholesome good looks of a less jaded Lara Flynn Boyle, could pass as a stripper. Or, more specifically, that her awkward, bony-ass gyrations and non-bimbo demeanor could inspire onlookers to tuck bills into her G-string.
What's depressingly accurate about The Center of the World is that technology has helped us separate intimacy even further from sexuality, making sex less about human connection and more just another product to be consumed. In this regard Wang and his collaborators (the script, credited to an "Ellen Benjamin Wong," is actually by Wang, novelists Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, and filmmaker Miranda July) have nailed it. Florence's attempts to grasp sexual empowerment by selling herself are a losing proposition, doomed to backfire. And Richard is an increasingly common male archetype, a man who's substituted earning power and a sense of entitlement for character development, who thinks he's a nice guy and a fantastic lover deserving of a gorgeous chick even though he never really works at it. But getting the details right doesn't necessarily make for compelling cinema, especially when the scenario is this dismal.