Petty Woman

Lap dance: Molly Parker gives Peter Sarsgaard a trip to bountiful.

The Center of the World's screenplay was written by Ellen Benjamin Wong, based on a story concocted by Wayne Wang, precocious filmmaker-performance artist Miranda July, novelist Paul Auster (who penned Wang's Smoke) and novelist Siri Hustvedt. With this many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a deceptively simple stew, filled with subtle nuances and mysterious spices. For better or worse, however, the movie is simply simple, and from its stripped-down production (shot on digi-Beta and mini DV, blown up to 35mm) to its tiny cast (accented by cameos from Pat Morita and Balthazar Getty), the project's quality and significance depend upon one's perspective: Is this a daring and impressive homespun yarn, or just a very middling stab at soft-core?

To sidestep these technical considerations, Wang dives in whole hog to produce the most lurid and frequently obnoxious sex drama seen in quite some time. Taking place mostly in Las Vegas (which the movie likens--along with "the cunt"--to the center of the world), it's the story of two lost, confused youngsters who try, respectively, to employ and deny the magic of sex to find meaning in their lives. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard of Boys Don't Cry) is a programming whiz with an IPO about to go through the roof and the world at his fingertips. The problem is, his hermetically sealed world lacks human contact.

Rather than seeking oneness with the universe among a bunch of glassy-eyed peaceniks, Richard instead opts to hit on the punkish Florence (Sunshine's Molly Parker), whom he meets in an urban coffee shop. When he quizzes her about what she does with her life, her response ("I make a lot of noise") seems intriguing but unsatisfactory. Yes, she may be a drummer in a band going nowhere, but how does she make her money? It turns out she's a stripper with a thing for lollipops who works a joint called Pandora's Box, and Richard, fully smitten, just can't wait to take off the lid.


The Center of the World

That lid, it turns out, costs $10,000--a far cry from Florence's lap-dance fee of $60 a throw--but for this sum, up front, Richard convinces her to join him for a long weekend in Vegas. There, amid the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice, he must adhere to certain terms, including "no talking about feelings, no kissing on the mouth and no penetration." Thereafter, we spend most of the movie in Nevada's hot sun and hotter nights, as Florence provides nightly entertainment and Richard struggles with her rules. But of course, we all know what rules are made for.

Parker gives what seems to be her all to bring Florence to life, and let's just say that conventional boundaries aren't much of a hang-up for her. Maybe, after doing Lynn Stopkewich's Kissed (in which she makes love to corpses), she just passed the line where conventional decorum means anything. Here, despite the character's exorbitant rate for "friendship," the actress seems determined to lay down everything as cheaply as possible. Her challenge to herself, one might assume, is to keep a human face on this whirlwind of rage and lust.

Sarsgaard proves to be a helpful foil--most of the time--and his overwhelming desire for her feels real, looks real. Perhaps because Richard is a Midwesterner who recently lost his father yet beams with pride about his tight family, the actor strives to exude the superhuman beneficence of a bodhisattva, basically being too nice for his own good. Hidden beneath, of course, is a smoldering vat of anger, which he tries his best to channel into his Quake video game. It's only when that cup runs over, when Richard turns into a vulgar mouth-breather overcome by his own arrogance, that everything sags.

The Center of the World often seems silly in its attempts to push the envelope, but push it it does, verbally as well as graphically.

Yet even as Wang hits us with shocking truths (sex, for example, is different from computers) and some very nice character-enhancing flashbacks, it's hard to tell what we're supposed to make of this shortcut to nowhere. Sometimes it's easy to forget how conservative America still is (or, more accurately, pretends to be), so maybe this is all about good old-fashioned taboo-smashing. Or maybe it's just an unconventional travelogue, with the camera left on when most people switch it off. Looking up one more time at this artificial oasis of harmony, it dawns that there is always grit beneath the tranquillity, and--according to The Center of the World--the converse may be true as well, for those who seek it. Ultimately, Florence and Richard go nowhere, but they definitely share a significant journey, suggesting that the world may have many centers.

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