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The Center Of The World  

Peter Sarsgaard...............Richard Longman
Molly Parker..................Florence
Mel Gorham....................Roxanne
Jason McCabe..................Calacanis
Carla Gugino..................Jerri
Balthazar Getty...............Brian Pivano
Pat Morita....................Taxi Driver
Shane Edelman.................Vladimir the Porter
Karry Brown...................Lap Dancer
Alisha Klass..................Pandora Stripper
Lisa Newlan...................Porn Site Woman
Travis Miljan.................Dog Owner
Jerry Sherman.................Old Man
Robert Lefkowitz..............Motel Manager
John Lombardo.................Gondolier

Directed by: Wayne Wang

Written by: Ellen Benjamin Wong

Running Time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

While known as perhaps the most alluring of physical pleasures, sexual intercourse seems to hold a much tighter grasp on the human psyche in the way it is perceived - from early male adolescence when it is viewed as a seemingly unattainable enigma (for normal adolescents, anyway) to later adolescence/early adulthood when the act takes shape as the most thundering declaration of one's love and devotion to the later years when sex is a more pleasant diversion from life's day-to-day troubles and routines. Wayne Wang's "The Center of the World" is the story of a young man trapped in the second of the above stages, even though financially he's set for life; and a young woman who was catapulted into the third stage very early on and who is aware that once the third stage is penetrated, there's no going back.

Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard, in a fine performance vastly different from his frightening turn as the vicious boyfriend in "Boys Don't Cry") is a computer whiz whose expertise in the field has facilitated his status as a twentysomething millionaire. In this internet-friendly society, Richard has carved a place for himself in "the center of the world" as he calls it, referring to the power and one-click-away influence captured by those well-trained in the intricacies of the information superhighway. He has attained the prestige of his competitive field, yet has a difficult time inhabiting it. Richard has the power, he has the money, and he has a great deal of spare time as we learn he owns eighteen percent of a highly successful computer business. Yet he spends his days locked away, his fingertips dancing across the keyboard as he masters a computer game while a pornography website stimulates the pixels of another monitor. Only when he meets a mysterious young woman in a local coffee shop does his interest in something not attached to a modem become aroused.

Her name is Florence (Molly Parker), and she tells him she's the drummer in a rock band, which she is. But she also conveys her means of breadwinning - as an exotic dancer. Richard is immediately captivated, and dangerously smitten. His naivete is a curse, unbeknownst to him but clear to the audience. He makes her a proposal: he will pay her to accompany him to Las Vegas (another self-proclaimed "center of the world") for three nights. Naturally, she has reservations about the offer:

Florence: "I don't do that."

Richard: "What?"

Florence: "F--- for money."

Richard: "Why do you talk like that?"

Uh, 'cause that's what it is. But Richard doesn't quite understand. Or his lofty occupational status doesn't provide him with the cognizance to comprehend how belittling his proposition is. The above exchange clearly tells us all we need to know about the two personalities, and hints to why the "arrangement" won't end good. However, Florence eventually agrees (to her own iron-clad terms) because she does after all need the money. So, they pack their things and head for the bright lights of Vegas.

The story doesn't contain a plot so much as it engages in an observation of human nature. A great deal is conveyed through the actions of those involved as opposed to their words. Director Wang ("The Joy Luck Club") masterfully balances the two diametrical perceptions of the same event as the two young strangers embark on an unwitting collision course with the most delicate human emotions bracing for the blow.

Richard's occupational status renders him more as a stranger in a strange land than a financially omnipotent tycoon. He's indeed rich, but not pompous. In fact, he's actually very sensitive. He nurtures and he dotes but unfortunately accompanies it with expectations that will never be fulfilled. When he makes Florence the offer, he does so with an unusually eager fascination, like a kid whose eyes are catching their first glimpse of a porn magazine. Sure, the offer is demeaning, but he doesn't see it that way. He will ultimately be a victim, but a victim of his own narcissism. Sarsgaard skillfully captures the character's naivete engulfed beneath his glossy coat of wealth.

Florence is clearly the more perceptive of the two, and is protrayed by Molly Parker as a woman whose quite comfortable with arousing a customer's libido, so as long as genuine feelings aren't raised as well. She senses the potential emotional catastrophe immediately after hearing his offer, but goes along for the money. Soon she does find herself falling for him, but doesn't allow herself the burden of exploring true love; perhaps because of an occupational code of ethics, but I also think because she senses his naive attitude toward sex and realizes the danger associated with it. At one point, she's accused of being emotionally hollow and frigid to which she responds indifferently. That's her safety net. And she's right. One can judge all they want, but it's far less dangerous to be frigid than it is to associate sexual intercourse with a quixotic perception of self-worth, as Richard does.

When hearing it described, the film seems like it would play in a very predictable manner. Yet somehow Wang and his writer, Ellen Benjamin Wong are able to construct the story in a fascinating way that effortlessly makes its points without belaboring them. The movie sort of sneaks up on you in plain view. It does contain scenes of flashback and even one that is a flash forward, but I never felt like I was in the dark. The film's true genius lies in its ability to allow the audience a level of comprehension of the characters so intricate that I never felt the need to judge them. There are no heroes or villains here. Just realistic, complicated personalities. To demonstrate how emotionally vacuous intercourse is to her, Florence at one point sits before Richard, her legs diverge and she begins masturbating - an act of autoeroticism not accompanied by embellished bouts of pleasurable moaning, but isolated and perfunctory. One can certainly perceive it as being cold-hearted and distant, but it's also a lesson this kid needs to learn. The humanistic spectrum is loaded with complicated thoughts and emotions. How grand it is see a movie that is equally complex.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically ill

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