Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Center Staged: "The Center of the World" (2001)

Although more infamous for its sex scenes than its acting and direction, Wayne Wang does marvels with a digital camera and his actors in a very good independent film.

Peter Sarsgaard is Richard, a young computer genius worth a million or so who takes a liking to Florence, played by Molly Parker. They decide to take a trip to Las Vegas together, with Richard paying for everything, and some harsh guidelines set up by Florence: no kissing on the mouth, together for just four hours every night, and no actual sexual penetration. Goofy Richard goes along with the demands, and the two skip town to Vegas. Richard is skipping more than just town, his computer business is about to go IPO, and his partner can not seem to get a hold of him.

Florence and Richard settle into a routine, and try to get to know each other after being so intimate physically. Richard's love for Florence is obvious, but slowly Florence begins to have feelings for Richard that are not of the usual prostitute/john type. Carla Gugino flashes in as one of Florence's screwed up friends, who notices a change in Florence when she is with Richard. Eventually, the couple begin breaking their rules, and the climactic sex scene brings out everyone's true colors on the future of the relationship.

The title of the film is interesting in that Richard thinks the center of the world is his computer, and Florence thinks it is a female's sexual organs. Eventually in the film, Florence's definition seems to be decided on, with Richard using his Center (money wise) to get to her Center.

The film treads through the familiar sexual obsession territory, but without going to the lengths that have been touched on in dozens of late night Showtime and Sinemax series and made for cable fodder. Richard is a genuine babe in the woods, trying to project a dangerous side, when in fact he is a nice guy who wants to help people. Try and keep track of how many times he asks Florence and others if they are okay or all right.

Florence is a great character, unable to contain her growing emotional attachment, so she uses her own body as a wall to Richard's love. You find yourself wishing these two screwed up people would get it together, but the ending leaves it up in the air without being too frustrating.

If anything, I sometimes found the sex to get in the way of the plot. Both people share innocuous stories from their past, then follow through with kinky sexual acts, but I got more from the stories.

Wang does a great job with the digital camera. He is respectful of his actors, not getting into everyone's face because he has the technology to, but he stays close enough to give the audience a voyeuristic feeling in the hotel room scenes. While some scenes run long here and there, I found the two main characters so different and so interesting, I did not mind the slow spots.

There is a lot of sex and nudity here, but only one very brief scene set in a strip club constitutes anything you would normally see in a porno. This is the kind of film Roger Ebert has been screaming about for years, demanding a new "A" for Adult rating that would be higher than an "R," but not quite a porno either. The "NC17" blew up in the MPAA's face, as it replaced the "X," it did not fall just below it.

"The Center of the World" is just less than an hour and a half long, but speaks volumes about its characters. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, I am still smarting from sitting through Wang's "Chan is Missing," one of the most dull, over-celebrated, and pointless films ever made.

He has come a long way, and I highly recommend this effort. (* * * *) out of five stars.