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Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Last tango in Las Vegas

The Center of the World

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Akai Heya no Koibito
Director: Wayne Wang
Running time: 87 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Where exactly is "The Center of the World," referred to in the title of Wayne Wang's new film? It's a question worth pondering as Wang and cowriter Paul Auster -- the combo behind "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face" -- take you on a sexual odyssey through uncharted areas of desire and alienation.

News photo
Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker in "The Center of the World"

For the film's lead character, Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard), that "center" could be the San Francisco Bay Area, where he and other young dot-com execs have made a killing on their IPOs. (The film was made in 2001, but already feels like an artifact.) Richard, only in his mid-20s, is already wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but -- like many a computer otaku -- his over-immersion in a solitary, digital world has left him naive emotionally, and starved for something physical, something real.

Like many of us, Richard bought into the illusion that the Internet was some sort of "center of the world," an ether realm where we're all connected and virtually any desire can be satisfied -- make that virtually satisfied. Richard learns the difference when he falls for Florence (Molly Parker), a super-cool rock-band drummer who moonlights as a stripper at an upscale club called Pandora's Box (a name as unsubtle as "Richard Longman").

Flo also harbors her own illusions, believing that it's possible to wield a strong, manipulative sexual persona (echoing the attitude of "do-me feminism") and still remain in control. What she will learn, the hard way, is that in matters of the heart -- not to mention lust -- control is quickly conceded to chaos.

When Richard, a regular customer at Flo's club, proposes paying her to accompany him on a long weekend in Vegas, she initially resists, saying "I don't have sex with people for money." "Why do you have to talk like that?" pleads Richard. He sees himself as a sweet guy, and the weekend as a long date. The $10,000 is merely "compensation"; obviously, Rich has never heard of enjo kosai.

Flo finally takes the bait but sets some strict rules on their "date." "10 p.m.-2 a.m. every night. Separate rooms. No talk about feelings, no kissing on the mouth, no penetration," adding one final note of caution: "It's all an act . . . you know that, right?"

Yes, yes, says Richard, as would any man eager to get Flo, with her limber legs and stiletto heels, into that hotel bedroom. But he does not understand this at all. Strippers are to female sexuality what crack is to coca leaf: a dangerously potent and unnatural concentration of the part that gets you high. He somehow thinks that while paying for and enjoying Flo's tantalizing lap dances, he can also connect to her emotionally and break past the act. He comes close.

What this film captures, in agonizing detail, is the unbridgeable mental gap that exists in any stripper/client relationship. No matter how much these two people have in common, no matter how much they may be attracted to each other, there will always be this lingering baseline paranoia that they're being played.

For him, it's the fear of not knowing where the act ends. Every smile, every orgasm is suspect. It's a comforting illusion of love, but no more. For her, it's the opposite; that he's in love with the image, the impossibly sexualized fantasy object, and not the real her. Between these two extremes, the lovers dangle.

Sarsgaard, so genuinely creepy as the white-trash killer in "Boys Don't Cry," seems like an altogether different person here. His Richard is laid-back, almost innocent despite his desires -- he's like a kid unwrapping a present on Christmas morning as he slips off Flo's dress. But there's something creepy as well, an inchoate darkness behind his affability that, like a child's tantrum, could erupt if he's denied what he wants.

Parker continues to be one of the most fearless actresses in cinema, following up on her highly erotic performances in "Kissed" and "Suspicious River" with another sizzler here. Her slightly delicate, ethereal beauty gives way here to a full-on adoption of the aggressive, provocative moves of a professional stripper. Her performance depends on walking a fine line between sexual strength and psychological vulnerability, between the "acted" and "the real." Parker makes us privy to all that and more, in a spellbindingly intimate performance, which is aided by the up-close-and-personal way in which Wang chose to shoot the film on digital video.

Ten-thousand-dollar flings in Vegas may be the stuff of fantasy for most of us (Tokyo brokerage employees excluded), but "The Center of the World" is a film that's easy to relate to. Confusion between the image we project and who we really are is something everyone understands innately. What this very perceptive piece of filmmaking explores is how a society predicated on the commercial satisfaction of desires -- as exemplified by the hedonistic theme-park city of Las Vegas -- has left us more unfulfilled than ever.

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