Though Wayne Wang’s new film, constructed with the same heavy-handed artiness and literary pretension that’s characterized all his work, may get a reputation for steamy sensuality, it’s actually about two people who can’t connect emotionally. Unhappily, the same problem afflicts the picture as well. Though it gives the audience nearly ninety minutes with a young man and woman who spend a long weekend in a Vegas hotel suite, it doesn’t manage to create much empathy for them, and at the close it’s difficult to care whether they get back together or never see one another again.
The male half of the duo is Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard), a scruffy but brilliant computer geek whose IPO is about to take off. (Given the recent NASDAQ collapse, of course, this aspect of the plot is more than a trifle dated, but we’ll let that pass.) He links up with a lap dancer (and aspiring rock musician) named Florence (Molly Parker), to whom he offers ten thousand bucks to go to Nevada for a liberating fling. She eventually agrees, but only under fairly stringent conditions which will limit the hours they can spend in intimate activity and the sorts of things that activity can involve. Needless to say, the guy, an inordinately nice but fairly immature sort, eventually sees more to their relationship than a purely business arrangement, while the woman insists on keeping to the contractual stipulations they’d agreed upon, even though she’s obviously troubled by the situation. The ending may be taken as either hopeful or morose, depending on whether you take it as a chronological epilogue or as a flashback to the beginning of the story (since Wang plays with time repeatedly throughout the picture, shifting episodes around without much notice, it’s a debatable point).
Within the context of this sex-by-arrangement theme that recalls numerous earlier pictures, from Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) to Frederic Fonteyne’s 1999 “Une liaison pornographique” (released here last year as “An Affair of Love”), Wang wants to construct a parable of how the possibility of true human relationships is sabotaged by the intrusion of cash, but his take on the idea is too thin and insubstantial to carry much resonance. Nor is the picture genuinely erotic: there’s considerable nudity (much of it extraordinarily casual) and much intertwining of bodies, but it’s presented (like the rest of the picture) in a gritty style, accentuated by hand-held camerawork, that makes it all seem grim rather than sensuous. The fact that that’s the intended point isn’t much consolation.
The lead performances, on the other hand, are quite impressive. Sarsgaard is actually too handsome for the role of a nerdy high-tech whiz, but he submerges his good looks sufficiently to make him reasonably plausible as a rumpled fellow not at ease in the wider world. (This, along with his formidable turn as the brutal boyfriend in “Boys Don’t Cry,” make him a young actor to watch.) Parker lays on the anguish a bit thick, but her relative plainness makes her more convincing as Florence than a more glamorous actress would have been. The only other cast member who makes much of an impression (this s basically a two-character piece) is Carla Gugino, as an old pal of Florence’s who briefly links up with the couple in Vegas; her character is apparently supposed to represent a looser, more freewheeling attitude toward life and lust than either of the two leads can muster, though in truth it seems she’s worse off than either of them.
It’s the audience, though, who probably has the toughest time. “The Center of the World” (the phrase is used twice in the film, once to refer to a computer connection as the nexus of the modern “wired” world and then to a portion of the female anatomy as the real source of vibrancy) is ultimately so desiccated a portrait of a brief encounter that it will leave the viewer as despondent as its unhappy protagonists.