The Center of the World
Some films start out with a premise that holds potential but all to often it goes off on a tangent that results in a lose of focus. The Center of the World had that initially interesting premise; a ‘dot com’ millionaire hires a stripper to accompany him on a three-day stay in Las Vegas. If this film concentrated on the initial emotional distance between the characters and their unwillingness to confront their own internal conflicts, this might have been more interesting. Instead the film attempts to compare the sale of fantasy, profit without giving value, as represented by the millionaire Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) and the stripper Flo (Molly Parker). As with many Internet stocks Richard’s firm sells a web service, he is making a fortune not from material goods but from a promise of web access. Flo wants to be a rock drummer. Typical of young ‘wannbes’ she requires another source of income. In her case she strips and gives lap dances, again, the sale of fantasy, no touching, no real intimacy just a performance for an agreed upon sum of money. The contract that Flo insists upon when she agrees to accompany Richard includes terms such as no kissing on the mouth, no penetration and she only ‘performs’ for him between the hours of 10pm and 2am. In return she gets $10,000 up front. There is a glimpse of what this film could have been during the scenes where the firmly established boundaries between Flo and Richard are tested and somewhat broken down. We also see some of what the characters pre-contract lives were like but not enough expository material to really give the audience an idea of what lead them to those dark places. Richard isolated himself in a room full of computers. He plays Quake, watches online pornography and watches his stock’s price. Flo practices her drumming, drifts through the days and by night she strips in a rather seedy club. The theme of money for no real goods is developed but rather than an emotional impact for the audience we get an almost philosophical discourse on the empty values held dear by our society. While the interminable drifting of the plot may help support the aimlessness depicted in the storyline the overall affect is almost too vague, too devoid of something to really grab the interest of the viewer. Its difficult to establish such malaise on the screen, To do so the writer has to walk the fine line between the story drifting and depicting characters adrift in the world.
The casting of this film was excellent. Sarsgaard plays Richard with a good deal of empathy. Even thought the world at large would envy a man that has made so much money in such a short time, we feel sorry for him. Sarsgaard allows us to see that this newly anointed captain of industry is a lonely, pathetic man. It has been said that money cannot buy happiness but in Richard’s case he can’t even rent it. Molly Parker is incredible as Flo. There is a sense of lost innocence about her that manages to reach the audience on the one real emotional level of the film. She also displays a rare moment in film in on scene where she is putting on her makeup before a 10pm performance for Richard. Has the makeup covers her freckles (being Irish perhaps I focus a lot on a beautiful woman with freckled skin) it is as if she is covering her real self in order to become a separate person to perform. Being a separate person Flo does not have to hold herself personally responsible for what she has to do for money. Parker plays her as someone that deludes herself into thinking that the means, stripping, justifies the end, becoming a great rock drummer. In the many scenes between the two they have a begrudging chemistry that although strained at times ultimately works out.
Wayne Wang is a director that has proven himself in the past. He directed the critically successful Joy Luck Club and has directed the up coming J-Lo romantic comedy Maid in America. While this case might not have been among the best of his work he earned the right to try. His co-writing and directorial credits here demonstrate that he is willing to take a few risks to expand his talent in his chosen profession. Center of the World demonstrates a nice grasp of how to make a visually interesting film. There are many flashback scenes where Wang washes almost all of the color from the film. There are a few hints of color in an otherwise almost black and white worldview. He also experiments with a style of camera work that seems reminiscent of Blair Witch or the early episodes of NYPD Blue. This jagged, hand held approach is successful in keeping the audience on edge and a bit disturbed. There is also a scene that was forbidden in the city of Cincinnati Ohio, something regarding an unusual use of a lollipop. While this scene represents only three seconds of the film’s time it was upsetting enough for the good people to Cincinnati to have it removed for showings there. One thing about DVDs is they do provide a means to by pass a lot of the influence of the MPAA and present unrated films.
Artisan usually presents even the most obtuse independent films with the best possible mastering. Here, they fell a bit short of the mark. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does not provide a full, encompassing audio field. The rear speakers are underutilized and the sub woofer over used for this type of film. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video was extremely good. Considering this film is highly visual this was a good choice for the mastering department. The extras are a bit on the minimal side. A few deleted scenes and a mundane ‘making of’ featurette. What really disappointed me is the director’s commentary are not a just a separate audio track, they are completely separate from the film and only seven scenes are presented with commentary. The film has excellent acting and visual display but in the end it’s a 90 minute long Cinemax at night show.