Film Reviews

Lust Life

Presently sitting in a peaceful meditational facility. First time here. The location (which shall remain unnamed) was selected specifically for the loving creation of this review, as it provides an almost perfect contrast to The Center of the World, the new motion picture from acclaimed director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke). As scents of lavender and lilac waft past and hummingbirds hover, we'll assess the way people use, abuse and trash one another sexually and emotionally. Cool?

From a story concocted by Wang, precocious filmmaker/performance artist Miranda July, novelist Paul Auster (who penned Smoke) and novelist Siri Hustvedt, Center's screenplay was written by Ellen Benjamin Wong. With this many cooks in the kitchen, one might expect a deceptively simple stew, filled with subtle nuances and mysterious spices. For better or worse, however, the movie is simply simple, and from its stripped-down production to its tiny cast, the project's quality and significance depend upon one's perspective: Is this a daring and impressive homespun yarn, or just a middling stab at soft-core?

To sidestep these technical considerations, Wang dives in whole hog to produce the most lurid and frequently obnoxious sex drama seen in quite some time. Taking place mostly in Las Vegas (which the movie likens -- along with "the cunt" -- to the center of the world, although that desert town seems more closely related to a somewhat less noble orifice), it's the story of two lost, confused youngsters who try to employ and deny the magic of sex to find meaning in their lives. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard, Boys Don't Cry) is a programming whiz with an IPO about to go through the roof, and the world at his fingertips. The problem is, his hermetically sealed world lacks human contact.

Rather than seeking oneness with the universe among a bunch of glassy-eyed peaceniks, Richard instead opts to hit on the punkish Florence (Molly Parker, Sunshine), whom he meets in an urban coffee shop. When he quizzes her about what she does with her life, her response ("I make a lot of noise") seems intriguing but unsatisfactory. Yes, she may be a drummer in a band, but how does she make her money? It turns out she's a stripper who works a joint called Pandora's Box, and Richard, fully smitten, just can't wait to take off the lid.

That lid, it turns out, costs $10,000, but for this sum, up front, Richard convinces her to join him for a long weekend in Vegas. There, amid the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice, he must adhere to certain terms, including "no talking about feelings, no kissing on the mouth and no penetration." Thereafter, we spend most of the movie in Nevada's hot sun and hotter nights, as Florence provides nightly entertainment and Richard struggles with her rules. But of course we all know what rules are made for.

Parker, a Canadian actress of great versatility (proved recently in Wonderland and The Five Senses), gives what seems to be her all to bring Florence to life, and let's just say that conventional boundaries aren't much of a hang-up for her. Maybe, after doing Lynn Stopkewich's Kissed (in which she makes love to corpses), she just passed the line where conventional decorum means anything. Here, despite the character's exorbitant rate for "friendship," the actress seems determined to lay down everything as cheaply as possible. Her challenge to herself, one might assume, is to keep a human face on this whirlwind of rage and lust.

Sarsgaard proves to be a helpful foil -- most of the time -- and his overwhelming desire for her feels real, looks real. Perhaps because Richard is a Midwesterner who recently lost his father, the actor strives to exude the superhuman beneficence of a bodhisattva, basically being too nice for his own good. Hidden beneath, of course, is a low-boiling vat of anger, which he tries his best to channel into his Quake video game. It's only when that cup runs over, when Richard turns into a vulgar mouth-breather overcome by his own arrogance, that everything sags. Wang frames Sarsgaard's dirty talk in one long, obscene close-up that's meant to be gripping but comes across as knee-slappingly hilarious.

If this crew set out to top Last Tango in Paris, 9 1/2 Weeks or especially Elisabeth Shue's unpleasant biological experiences in Leaving Las Vegas, they may congratulate themselves most heartily. Center of the World often seems silly in its attempts to push the envelope, but push it it does, verbally as well as graphically. Some of its most powerful scenes involve Florence's disoriented friend Jerri (Carla Gugino), whose exultant attitude toward sodomy and threesomes is almost impossible to shake.

Yet even as Wang hits us with shocking truths (sex, for example, is different from computers) and some very nice character-enhancing flashbacks, it's hard to tell what we're supposed to make of this shortcut to nowhere. Sometimes it's easy to forget how conservative America still is (or, more accurately, pretends to be), so maybe this is all about good old-fashioned taboo-smashing. Or maybe it's just an unconventional travelogue, with the camera left on when most people switch it off.

Looking up one more time at this artificial oasis of harmony, it dawns that there is always grit beneath the tranquillity, and -- according to Center of the World -- the converse may be true as well, for those who seek it.

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Gregory Weinkauf