Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"The Center of the World" Review

Trailers for "The Center of the World" promised a compelling film from director Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club"). It's about an odd, alluring encounter between two people, played by Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker : a nice techie convinces a complicated, beautiful stripper to be his paid date for an event in vegas.

Are they truly drawn to each other, despite her no-sex rule and his awkwardness? What do we make of a woman whose in-the-mirror pep-talks sound like phone sex dialogue? Or a guy naive enough to foster romance with cash? Will fantasy turn into reality? In the end, "tCotW" failed its promise.

After "tJLC," neither Wayne Wang's skills nor choices were in doubt. It's surprising, then, how often he's helmed poorly-received films. To my surprise, I remember very little of "tJLC," but recall being impressed by "Smoke." Its impromptu followup, "Blue in the Face," was ill-advised, but it was an artistic "fancy." Those tend to be great or awful.

As a director, Wang stays strong: "tCotW" is so striking! Its vivid look and feel is a visual blessing. The camera works exactly like an actor - it's stunning. Sadly, that's the only uncompromised compliment I can give him here. Wang joked that he made his art film first, then turned to porn. In my mind, he made "Leaving Las Vegas" meets "Pretty Woman," and it's quite flawed.

This film can feel aimless. Sadly, its goal is a climax and resolution that are poorly-conceived and -executed. The characters & actors have a genuine connection, and that works as the crux of the picture. Tension rises since we know that she is savvy and strong, but may be disarmed by this lame-yet-good-hearted doofus. The actors carry that part of the movie perfectly.

Still, I wondered often if "tCotW" was an intentional farce. As many noted, Peter's character is deluded - about life, the trip... You don't find love with a paid date, especially one you never get to know. And though he blows off work for sex, money really is his "center." Yet he has a genuine goodness that strongly evokes sympathy. It's ridiculous, but Sarsgaard deserves credit for selling it so well.

Molly Parker is great in a role with real emotional depth. This isn't just a woman who derives her power from lust - she has to juggle a budding romance with her refusal to be a hooker. And as she does this, everything in the film is trying to confuse her. I just wish she'd had a better film for her work - she's at ground zero when the climax wrecks the whole picture.

As things come to a head, what she does means that she's an emotional coward, and somewhat cruel. What he does is handled catastrophically by Wayne and the two leads. It's this - lacking elevated metaphor and badly-resolved - that breaks the picture. It effectively leaves the movie without any credible thesis, and that's important in talky character dramas. Alas, the subsequent scenes don't save it.

Finally, a note on the magnificent Carla Gugino. As Parker's unethical stripper friend, she really increases the tension between the leads. Yet Gugino's talent is wasted. The bulk of her lines are in a story she tells about herself. Her tale is straight out of a porn film (it's about 2 unusual sex acts) but the scene plays like an important confession between sensitive friends. Group hug! Is it intentional absurdity? As I said, I wondered if this were a farce...

This should have been a good ride. It should have said a lot about sex, romance, people, and what's important to them; it does, in small ways. The leads' chemistry, in spite of their shallow preoccupations, reflects well on the script and the actors. And you do get a sense of what "the center of the world" is for these people.

But it's all undermined by the context of some important scenes. Wang should've seen this, and made "tCotW" address some of its themes in a more head-on way. For all that, nothing could save this picture from that terribly-managed climax.

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