Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard), a computer programmer making a fortune amidst the dot-com boom, is smitten with enigmatic stripper, Florence (Molly Parker). He brings her to Las Vegas for fun and frolics, though she insists on control over their relationship. Which means plenty of flexible displays of bare flesh, but no penetrative sex or more importantly, no romance. At first the couple have fun, get to know each other and seem to be growing closer. But things deteriorate as Richard grows to suspect he may have Florence’s body but can never win her love.
For his first digital video feature, the admirably eclectic Wayne Wang set out to craft an intelligently erotic art-house picture along the lines of one of his own favourite movies, Last Tango in Paris (1972). As was the case with Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous opus, the intent here is not simply to indulge in explicit nudity or sex but to subvert the pornographic format into an open and honest discussion about relationships. The film is driven by the question of whether Richard and Florence have sparked a real romance or whether their relationship remains purely financial. Wang and his two talented leads keep viewers guessing even beyond the ambiguous fadeout. However, though the film is skilfully made, shot by cinematographer Mauro Fiore with a suitably voyeuristic tone, and undoubtedly well acted it is nowhere as sociopolitically complex nor dramatically dynamic as its role model.
The screenplay was co-written by Wang along with ultra quirky indie multi-hyphenate Miranda July, his old Smoke (1995) and Blue in the Face (1995) collaborator Paul Auster and novelist Siri Hustvedt yet The Centre of the World comes across like two films stapled together. On the one hand, an over-familiar navel gazing indie chat-fest, on the other the kind of glossy softcore pseudo-philosophizing porn with which Zalman King once cornered the home video market. The film is very turn-of-the-millennium in its preoccupation with the dot-com boom. Yet while in interviews Wang voiced his fascination with the connection between these flourishing dot-com entrepreneurs and strip clubs, he barely explores the reasons why Richard is so depressed and alienated at his workplace. Again, Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker give fearless, nuanced performances but their characters simply aren’t all that engaging. Richard and Florence remain these rather cold enigmatic figures. The central tension in their relationship is one familiar from movies about hookers going back to Klute (1971), although the film does at least stand as a worthy riposte to Hollywood fairytales like Pretty Woman (1990).
After a while the aimlessness of the narrative begins to grate. While the film remains driven foremost by the two leads, there are memorable encounters with the likes of Balthazar Getty as a work colleague whose report home that Richard is seeing a hooker in Vegas adds a plot wrinkle that is inexplicably undeveloped. Also Carla Gugino shows up as an abused hooker colleague-cum-single parent who shares some girl-on-girl smooching with Florence and invites Richard to indulge in a threesome. Much to the disappointment of Gugino fans, that does not happen. The film makes its bid for Last Tango style infamy in such scenes as when Parker graphically inserts a lollipop inside her vagina before placing it in the mouth of an enthusiastic patron or later nudges an ice cube up Sarsgaard’s ass in mercifully less explicit fashion. Yet the sterile tone leaves the action more sleazy than sexy while the drama is simply too slight to justify all the bump and grind.