Director Wayne Wang has shot features on the cheap before (1995’s improvised Blue in the Face piggybacked on the production of Smoke, utilizing many of the same actors and locations), but with The Center of the World he takes the plunge into the microbudget frontier of digital video. A sort of millennial Last Tango in Vegas, Center is being released unrated by Artisan Entertainment, either because they were unwilling to make cuts to satisfy the MPAA or because it’s a marketing ploy that worked well for them last year with Requiem for a Dream. Those drawn to the theater by the implicit promise of explicit sex will have to settle for one brief shot of a stripper putting a lollypop to decidedly carnal use; the rest of the time, Center‘s pleasures are more conceptual than sensual.
Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard) is a dot-com millionaire on the verge of an IPO deal that will net him many additional millions. His "center of the world" is a computer terminal, the port of entry to a global network of impersonal connections. In a rare foray away from his laptop he encounters Florence (Molly Parker), a drummer for a rock band whose day job involves taking off her clothes and giving lapdances to martini-swilling businessmen on their lunch hours. After a few visits to Pandora’s Box, Richard is smitten. He offers Florence $10,000 to accompany him to Las Vegas for the weekend and, after submitting a checklist of guidelines, she agrees. According to her rules, separate but connected bedrooms will be maintained. Sexual contact will be limited to the hours between 10 pm and 2 am. There will be no kissing on the mouth or penetration.
The idea here is that this is as much a virtual relationship as the ones Richard is accustomed to carrying on through his laptop keyboard (though it certainly looks like a lot more fun). As her feelings toward her weekend employer gradually thaw, however, Florence begins to bend the rules. Her attitude toward their financial arrangement is further complicated by the appearance of old friend Jerri (Carla Gugino), now working as a blackjack dealer and earning extra money on the side entertaining male guests.
With its prefabricated veneer and vacuum-packed ambiance, the "New Vegas" serves as the ideal setting for Center‘s themes of emotional isolation and detachment. Indeed, the classic movie Vegas of all-night gambling and smoky cabarets is nowhere to be seen. In the eyes of a hotel bellhop, this 21st century metropolis is the center of the world, encompassing as it does "the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower" (not to mention the canals of Venice and the pyramids of Egypt). Not that Richard and Florence spend much time in this synthetic wonderland; most of the movie’s action is confined to the hotel room where Wang’s sexual set pieces unfold. Intimately captured on digital video, these scenes are certainly attention-grabbing, particularly one involving the unorthodox use of ice cubes and Tabasco sauce.
But despite all the grunting and heaving, not much heat is generated. In a way, this is part of the point, but it’s also part of the problem, amplifying as it does the studied, overly tidy thematic notions of the filmmakers. Like Florence, Wang and his collaborators (among them novelist Paul Auster) are following their own checklist, and thus the characters never take on a life of their own. Sarsgaard (Boys Don’t Cry) looks and sounds like a young Steve Gutenberg, which seems only fitting as he’s playing just the sort of goofball nebbish Gutenberg used to specialize in. Florence is even more of a sketch; Parker (Kissed, Wonderland) presents a chilly facade that becomes more frustratingly opaque as the film goes on. It’s hard to blame her, though, since she’s playing not a human being but a thesis statement. Like the architects of the New Vegas, Wang and company have crafted a tantalizing shell with a hollow center.