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Center of the World

For MIT Students, It Might Be A Computer

By Jed Horne

staff writer

Directed by Wayne Wang

Screenplay by Ellen Benjamin Wong

Based on a story by Wayne Wang

Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, and Carla Gugino

Unrated, contains graphic sexuality and language

Wayne Wang’s new film, Center of the World, revolves around the sort-of-creepy but endearing Richard (Peter Sarsgaard of Boys Don’t Cry), a dot-com millionaire with a Petrarchian fascination for Florence (Molly Parker), a stripper of the watch-but-don’t-touch variety. After he convinces her to spend three nights in Vegas with him for ten thousand dollars and a promise to uphold a contract (no actual sex, no kissing on the lips, visitation privileges between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.), the emotional stakes rise and the relationship spirals out of control. Three nights, two hookers and five latex dresses later, Richard and Florence are left to pick up the pieces.

Center of the World is in some ways a difficult movie to watch. Shot using a digital camera, scenes from Las Vegas are interspersed with grey-tinged flashbacks relating how Richard and Florence met. Thanks to a talented cast, Richard and Florence look really uncomfortable with each other, and Molly Parker’s command of on-screen emotion is something that could have come straight out of a silent movie. If Wang had cut everything except for the numerous (and peculiarly un-erotic) sex scenes, he still would have gotten his point across. A side-plot involving another prostitute (Carla Gugino) is also worthwhile, if for no other reason than to watch the mother from the children’s movie Spy Kids compare female orgasms and ejaculation.

A side note: there’s a good reason that digital cinematography hasn’t replaced 35 mm. Although there is something to be said for cinema-veritÉ, there’s a difference between a movie and two hours of what looks like amateur home video footage broadcast over the internet. To Wang’s credit, though, I think that was the point somewhat bluntly executed, but the point nonetheless. To Richard (and a not-so-surprisingly large number of MIT undergraduates), the center of the world is his computer instant-access sex, anonymous (and empty) relationships. The most effective moment in the entire movie is the last scene as Florence asks “What do you want me to do for you, baby?” Richard the computer programmer is exposed as simply not understanding the distinction between hyper-links and reality. Florence is, for all intents and purposes, point-and-click.

The problem is that this has all been done before. Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas basically came to the same conclusion: the chimerical “hooker with a heart of gold” is just that, chimerical. Figgis, like Wang, is prone to pretty repulsive pretense at times (watch The Loss of Sexual Innocence if you don’t believe me), and both directors are maybe a little too willing to use stylized cinematography to over-inflate a message that should be obvious to anyone not floating around somewhere in the atmosphere. Wang even ripped off Leaving Las Vegas’ trademark speeded-up-traffic shot (not to mention its namesake location).

The other angle of the film is the more peculiar one coming from Wayne Wang, who is known for his more traditional “women’s” movies, including the screen adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. In a fit of women-bashing straight from probably the worst movie of all time (and the raunchiest), Romance, Florence’s sexuality comes off as too confused and misguided for its own good. And while Richard deserves some of the blame for what happens (let’s see how many clichÉs we can cram into one sentence -- money doesn’t buy happiness, nice guys finish last, don’t count your chickens before they hatch ...) it’s mostly Florence’s fault for being so ... well, feminine. And confused. And hyper-sexual. And just about anything else you can accuse strippers (and by extension, the stripper that every woman wants to be) of being. After all (as Florence all but comes out and says), the center of every woman’s world is her vagina.

So what’s the point of all this negativity? Despite the moralistic hand-waving (and wringing), Center of the World is mostly fluff. As a friend of mine who came to the movie with me put it, eloquently, “You want the moral of the story? Don’t take a frigid bitch with you to Vegas.”