"Center of the World" is the kind of cerebral, sexually-charged, adult drama the NC-17 rating was created for, back before puritanical paranoids went on a smear campaign to defame the new rating into a black-listing tool.
Released unrated to avoid any stigma attached to its eroticism, the film is a vividly personal character study of an overly stressed, socially stunted dot-com programmer and his desperately warped courtship of a icily beautiful and very skeptical stripper.
Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) first meets Florence (Molly Parker) in a coffee shop while she's off-duty and almost out of the blue offers her $10,000 to spend a week with him in Las Vegas. Neurotic and lonely, this fellow latches onto the hope that with some time alone together such an unattainable girl might find something in him to love.
After setting several ground rules about when and how much time they'll spend together, the kind of contact allowed and the kind of services to be rendered, Florence dubiously agrees. However the trip doesn't go as either of them planned. Unexpected kinship, unforeseen interference and scarred psyches turn their strange tryst into an emotional tempest that may leave them both worse for the wear.
Co-written and potently directed by Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club," "Smoke," "Chinese Box"), this film plumbs its characters' souls and finds them damaged. In the fully submerged performance of Sarsgaard (last seen at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum as a redneck murderer in "Boys Don't Cry"), he uncovers turmoil, frustrated loneliness and extreme ennui as Richard becomes more frantic to connect with Florence as their time together ticks away.
Parker, who always packs a punch (she's best known for her contemplative necrophiliac in 1997's brilliant "Kissed"), portrays the complexities of Florence's practiced detachment as she fights with a sincere but trifling sympathy for Richard. She's confident in, but uncomfortable with, her obvious power over him, so she lets down her guard. But this leads him into deeper despair when the sexual barriers break down, too, and she finds no pleasure or satisfaction with him as a lover.
Further tensions arise when Florence's friend Jerri (Carla Gugino), a troubled ex-hooker, tracks her down seeking sex, money and emotional support after getting smacked around by a man in her life.
"Center of the World" is Wang's second film exploring a man's unrequited attachment to a woman who trades in sexuality. "Chinese Box" tied similar themes to the 1997 hand-over of Hong Kong, and as in that film, the director employs profoundly layered symbolism here. (The mirage of fantasy that is Las Vegas is used to interestingly understated effect.) Wang also lends the film -- and especially the very intimate scenes of indifferent sex -- an extra layer of voyeuristic import by shooting entirely on hand-held digital video cameras.
Yet for all its under-the-skin intensity, there is something I haven't been able to identify which is missing from "Center of the World," preventing it from making an immediate impact -- even with the occasionally graphic sexuality. I left the press screening moderately impressed, but it wasn't until a week or two later that I realized how much of the movie stuck with me. (Good thing I procrastinated on this review!)
I still remember clearly the subtle ways Wang builds backstory and character, as in a scene that starts in the hotel room as Richard plays "Quake" on his laptop while waiting for Florence to arrive for their scheduled erotic rendezvous. Wang cuts momentarily to a flashback of Richard at his home office -- playing "Quake" on one computer monitor, surfing a sorority girl shower site on another, eating pizza and talking stock options on his cell phone. It's a sharp and sudden comprehension that this existence is his whole, pathetic life.
Such strong but sly reveals pop up again and again in "Center of the World," and these are the moments that continue to linger in my brain after three weeks and 20 other movies.
Run time: 88 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th May 2001
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
Production compaines: Redeemable Features, Artisan Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%
Fresh: 27 Rotten: 53
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Wayne Wang
Starring: Shane Edelman as Porter, Peter Sarsgaard as Richard Longman, Molly Parker as Florence, Karry Brown as Lap Dancer, Alisha Klass as Pandora Stripper, Mel Gorham as Roxanne, Lisa Newlan as Porn Site Woman, Jason McCabe as Pete (as Jason Mccabe Calacanis), Travis Miljan as Dog Owner
Also starring: Pat Morita