Published April 1, 2001
The Center of the World, directed by Wayne Wang from a script written by Mr Wang and others under the pseudonym of Ellen Benjamin Wong, is a sort of parable—an attempt to be honest about the relations between men and women by portraying a very odd relationship indeed. A computer nerd called Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) meets a stripper called Florence (Molly Parker) and offers to pay her $10,000 to come with him to Las Vegas for three days. The film begins with shots of the imitation Statue of Liberty, Venetian canals etc that are so characteristic of the city—as if the dislocation we feel at finding these things in one place is meant to suggest the confusion between artifice and reality which is the film’s main theme. In fact, of course, the fake monuments of Vegas are instantly recognizable as fake. Being fake is the point of them, you might almost say, just like the exotically costumed girls of a Vegas chorus line.
And, the film means to tell us, being fake is also the point of relationships built on sexual intimacy. Not only, that is, relationships between a guy who divides his life between work and looking at pornography on the Internet and a gal who accepts $10,000 to go to Vegas with him all the while insisting that she does not take money for sex but all relationships. See that’s where the art, the parable of the thing comes in. Because if the movie is just about these two people, each as odd as the other, it amounts to a mere banality to say that there’s quite a lot of faking it, one way or another, between them, quite a lot of going through the motions. What else would you expect? But what you wouldn’t expect is the proposition that all this fakery adds up to something profound about “relationships.” That’s the proposition that the movie is really attempting to sell us on: that all intimacy is a struggle to separate the real from the fake.
I don’t think I’m buying it. Even though Richard is confused about the reality of his own feelings, or of Florence’s, when their commercially arranged dalliance threatens to become something more, he is so in a way that never quite takes us with him. We can understand how and why he might want to forget about that $10,000, but we can’t forget about it and can only pity his self-deception. What need for the freightage of symbolical analogues for illusion—another and possibly unintended one is that in the course of the film Richard becomes a dot-com millionaire— when the central illusion that they are supposed to illustrate is such a pathetic one? “It’s all an act; you know that, right?” says Florence on agreeing to go with him. And if both he and she at times come close to forgetting it, we haven’t got their incentive to do so.
In another strained bit of symbolism, Florence is a former locksmith, now a drummer in a girl’s band, who reminisces about her locksmithing career to Richard, stressing those moments when she was able to free helpless people or animals from confined spaces. Now she is doing the same for Richard in a way, isn’t she? Well, no, actually. The self-consciousness with which the film erects its artistic pretensions is a constant annoyance, like the vid-cam look of various flashbacks and flash-forwards that is apparently meant to confer authenticity.
But if you can overcome this annoyance, you can see something, or rather two things, that might almost make the film worth seeing. The first is that it is at times a genuinely erotic experience, a real flirtation with the borderlands between restraint and release. I cannot stress enough how rare that is in films today. The second thing is that as the relationship continues it tends to fall into a familiar pattern—of male pursuit and female reticence—which is threatening to both Richard and Florence because of its very traditional quality.
This is actually a brilliant idea. Why shouldn’t Richard fall in love with Florence? Why should Florence resist his advances so strenuously? Maybe just because it would make them a cliché, than which there is nothing worse for certain kinds of minds. When Richard at the film’s climax demands “reality” of the sexual encounter with Florence, both of them know he is asking the one thing she cannot give, except as “reality” is understood to exclude love or commitment. Thus her act of defiance is to say: “You want real? I’ll show you real!”—and to proceed to masturbate in front of him. The real is entirely self-contained. That, indeed, is how we recognize it as real. At this moment I could have really brought myself to recommend the film, but for the fact that it seems to me too lacking in self-awareness to have taken advantage of it.