The Center of the World

USA, 2001. Not rated. 86 minutes.

Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Carla Cugino, Balthazar Getty
Writers: "Ellen Benjamin Wong" (pseudonym for Wayne Wang, Miranda July, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt)
Music: none credited
Cinematographer: Mauro Fiore
Producers: Peter Newton, Wayne Wang
Director: Wayne Wang


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

I t's tempting to dismiss The Center of the World as a prurient, debased male fantasy--and many reviewers have done so--but, as Johnny Cochran might say, that's an unfair rush to judgment. We live in an age in which, via the Internet, more and more pornography is available to us and easier to access, and in which more and more women are turning to jobs as strippers to support themselves. Already one respected publication--I wish I could remember which one--has referred to stripping as the "new waitressing" because so many college and graduate students do it. Today, the line between sex fantasy and reality is more blurred than it has ever been. Besides, director and co-writer Wayne Wang, who has always treated women well in such films as Anywhere but Here and the excellent The Joy Luck Club, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

If, in addition to telling good stories, movies reveal truths about us by exploring the full range of existence and human experience, then the multibillion-dollar sex industry is perfectly legitimate subject matter. To dismiss the sex industry or pretend it doesn't exist is to dismiss and ignore a part of ourselves. Wang has said he noticed a connection between the high-tech community of the San Francisco area (where he lives) and its many strip clubs, so the inspiration for The Center of the World lies in something real.

More believable than Pretty Woman, less ludicrous than Showgirls and Striptease, and more explicit than any of them, The Center of the World is an occasionally titillating but ultimately grim depiction of one man's attempt to give reality to his sexual fantasies. It falls short of its lofty goals (see The Girl Next Door, the documentary about porn star Stacy Valentine, if you want authenticity), but The Center of the World is still a provocative exploration of sexuality and its interplay with emotions.

Peter Sarsgaard, who terrified us in Boys Don't Cry, is Richard, a computer geek whose online hobbies have become a business and made him a millionaire, and his company is cruising to an IPO that will make him even richer. (Clearly this film was written before the tech crash of April 2000.) Richard's lifestyle has changed not one whit, however. He still spends his days eating junk food in front of three computers, one to run his business, one to trade stocks, and one to look at porn. When Florence (Molly Parker), a woman he runs into every morning at a coffee shop, turns out to be a stripper, his perception of her shifts, and he sees in her a vehicle for realizing his fantasies. He promptly offers her ten thousand dollars to spend the weekend with him in Vegas. Florence is not a prostitute, but ten thousand dollars is too much to turn down in exchange for crossing a line that's already a bit fuzzy given her chosen profession. Is actual sex really that big a deal?Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker

It's strange to say about a film built on an erotic fantasy, but The Center of the World feels like a reasonably realistic portrayal of what might occur based on such a premise. Given the growing size of the sex industry, is such a premise really that far-fetched? We may want to think so, but it probably isn't.

Florence tries to tell herself that she's not fully embracing prostitution by drawing a new line: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration, sexual escapades only during certain hours, and separate hotel rooms. Richard tries to be a gentleman (as much as someone who offers a woman money for sex can be a gentleman), and Florence responds to that, spending time with him during the day and feeling increasingly tempted to cross even the new line she has drawn. But Richard's heavy consumption of porn has obviously not made him any less na´ve. If anything, it has made him more na´ve, because he actually thinks that Florence and he are building a relationship. All the gentlemanly behavior in the world can't alter the foundation of their bond, which is a financial transaction.

Proponents of legalizing prostitution say it provides a service to those who want to realize sexual fantasies in a harmless way and to those who are unable or unwilling to form normal sexual relationships. But in The Center of the World, the availability of prostitution is enabling Richard to avoid forming a normal sexual relationship, even though he obviously could, as Florence points out. Despite all the sex and nudity, The Center of the World takes the conservative view that the availability of sex for money, by negating or at least corrupting emotional connections, is unhealthy and demeaning.

Like Stanley Kubrick's controversial Eyes Wide Shut, the sexual explicitness will undermine The Center of the World as a serious, thoughtful film for many people. Sometimes The Center of the World seems indulgently lurid. However, one can argue that the explicitness is necessary in both films. It is necessary because as long as certain fantasies live in the imagination, they remain appealing. Only by leaving nothing to the imagination can movies like The Center of the World and Eyes Wide Shut really portray how unrewarding such experiences can be if they are realized. The graphic depiction shines a harsh light on the commoditization of sex. In rebuttal, one might argue that how unhealthy the commoditization of sex is depends on the mental state of the consumer, but Richard clearly is not in a healthy mental state.

The Center of the World, unfortunately, loses focus as it progresses. Its dissatisfying conclusion appears to make a vague point about the circular, repetitive nature of purchased sexual encounters. More disappointing, the film tries, but fails, to get close to Florence, whose actions and motivations grow confusing toward the end. Parker's remarkable performance gives Florence some of the depth absent from the script, but not enough. Kudos to Parker, nonetheless; she invests herself completely in a difficult and exposed (literally and emotionally) part. Parker, who is displaying an increasingly impressive range of roles and accents (Wonderland, Waking the Dead, Sunshine, The Five Senses), is also ideal from a physical standpoint. She is beautiful without being perfect; her freckles enhance the contrast between the real her and the dolled-up version, and she is slim without being implausibly aerobicized. She, like Sarsgaard's Richard, seems real. Even her chest is real, though that's an area where realism might have dictated that it not be.

Review © May 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 2001 New Line Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

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