The Center Of The World
It may be a sign of the times that Wayne Wang's uneven The Center Of The World is the third film in two years—following the superb An Affair Of Love and its more explicit French cousin, the as-yet-undistributed Intimacy—to focus on a couple's calculated sexual liaisons. In all three, the encounters are prearranged at first, with agreed-upon boundaries intended to establish routines and ensure emotional detachment, which, of course, becomes impossible over time. But whereas the sex in the other two films is mutually gratifying and on equal terms, money tips the uneasy balance between partners in Wang's story, further confusing an agreement both have entered in bad faith. Surrounded by monitors that buzz all day with stock quotes, Quake, and Internet porn, dot-com millionaire Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry) longs for something more tangible than the pixilated women at the "Sorority House Shower" web site. So he offers stripper Molly Parker $10,000 to spend three days with him at a hotel suite in Las Vegas. She reluctantly agrees, so long as there's a set timeframe for their liaisons, no talk about feelings, no kissing on the mouth, and no penetration. Their arrangement works well the first night, but slowly unravels when their screwy motives come to light: Sarsgaard, a sensitive and lonely bachelor, secretly aches for real intimacy between them; Parker, by establishing such strict ground rules, is trying to convince herself that what she's doing is not really prostitution. Intended as a Last Tango In Paris for the Communication Age, The Center Of The World may be the first American film to deal directly with the Internet's impact on human relationships, and how it paradoxically encourages connection and emotional distance. Shooting in digital video, which cannily resembles the high grain of a QuickTime movie, Wang presents Las Vegas as the model 21st-century city, an amalgam of faux-landmarks that unites the entire world in artificial synergy. But he hasn't done enough to dispel the vague sense of déjà vu; even with such big names as author Paul Auster and avant-garde filmmaker Miranda July contributing to the story, it's hard to shake the feeling that this room and these characters have been inhabited too many times before. Despite risky, high-wire performances by Sarsgaard and Parker, their emotional dynamic is too predictable, especially after the late appearance of Parker's friend (a Vegas dealer and prostitute played by Carla Gugino) erases a lot of the ambiguity in their relationship. Typical of Wang's varied and variable career, The Center Of The World isn't fully successful, but as a portrait of an Internet-era lifestyle, its maturity and ambition are rare commodities.