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The Center of the World
Can't Buy Me Love

Wayne Wang, who cites Last Tango in Paris as one of his favorites, set out to make a movie about sex. With that in mind, after some research trips to several strip clubs, he got together with old crony Paul Auster (they collaborated on the more successful Smoke), novelist Siri Husdvedt (also Auster's wife), and adult entertainer Miranda July, to write a screenplay. The result is The Center of the World. The title either refers to an Internet-ready computer terminal or a vagina, depending on which of the main characters' definitions you subscribe to. Or maybe it's Las Vegas, where you can find shopping malls, Venice, France, and an indoor roller coaster.

The beginning of The Center of the World is quite compelling. Richard, an isolated programmer who made millions with his company, meets a pretty girl in a café. The pretty girl is a drummer; she is also a stripper. Richard wants to live it up and after careful negotiations, takes Florence to Las Vegas for a weekend. He pays her 10,000 dollars and promises to adhere to her conditions, which include no kissing on the mouth, no penetration, and limits their time together to the hours between 10pm and 2am.

That's the set up. The characters have a believable contemporary edge and immediacy, especially Molly Parker's pale rock drummer who transforms herself into a professional sex worker. The jazzed-up dot-com IPO talk and the geek with three monitors (showing porn, Quake 3, and stock tickers respectively) who makes millions before breakfast feel fresh and new. But the film's news - that a relationship based on money can't work out - is so tired that by the end of Richard's wild weekend, I had lost all interest.

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The bizarre hyper-reality of Las Vegas ("We have the Eiffel Tower, we have the Canale Grande, we have the Empire State Building!" a porter exclaims) is a fine backdrop for a morality play involving the complex interplay of power, money, sex, and whatever human emotions lie buried under the shimmering surfaces. Florence's character oscillates between her hip slacker outfit and the dolled up sex fantasy she turns into at night--but the borders between the real and the make-believe blur, at least for Richard, who crunches down on ice cubes waiting for his paid-for dream girl to emerge from her contractually timed bedroom break.

The immediacy of the digital video segments, the interactive online porn, the strip bar, and Richard and Florence's agreement all raise questions about voyeurism that include the audience in the movie theater. As the print ads for the film proudly announce, there is much graphic sex on view. At the screening, there was a lot of nervous rustling, coughing, and uncomfortable seat-shifting going on, and I have to admit that I saw things that I would have preferred not to see - not because they were shocking or because I'm a prude, but because I simply feel there's no need, there was no artistic point to be made. Movies are inherently voyeuristic, but watching people have sex for money at any length makes me a person who paid money to watch people having sex.

Like 15 Minutes and Natural Born Killers, which indulge in violence under the cover of educating its audiences about violence, The Center of the World plays bait-and-switch and becomes complicit with that which it is trying to criticize. For a while, when Florence's battered friend shows up at the hotel, it seems like we might get treated to a steamy threesome - only to be reminded that we're not quite watching porn and that Wang's characters are endowed with human whims and fickle emotional lives.

While the general razzle-dazzle, thumping soundtrack, and ample skin do a lot to keep the attention focused on the screen, nagging questions raise their heads once the film is over. I found the whore too prudish and the geek too slick. In the blinking lights of Las Vegas, the film seems appealing, new, and fascinating, but under the harsh light of day, it's old wine in new bottles. Without the all new millennium veneer and the broken taboos du jour, The Center of the World is nothing but another lame cautionary tale. Like the overhyped Traffic, which wasn't much but an updated Reefer Madness, it uses new techniques to make us think it is daring and radical. Take away Wang's laptops, QuickTime movies, and DV recorders (and his lollipop, too), and you're left with just another film telling us that you can't buy love. We've heard it all before.

The Center of the World Directed by Wayne Wang. Screenplay by Wayne Wang, Miranda July, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt. Starring Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker. An Artisan Entertainment Release. USA, 2001.


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