I’ve followed — though not morbidly — Wayne Wang’s career ever since he broke onto the international film scene with his $20,000 indie, Chan Is Missing, in 1982. In that time, Wang has made some good films (The Joy Luck Club) and some near great ones (Smoke), but he’s never quite crossed the line into true greatness. And The Center of the World does nothing to push him any further toward that line. Wang’s been on the film scene for nearly 20 years now and despite good work, he still seems a director in search of a style. Hopefully, The Center of the World is not the style he’s been searching for. And likely it isn’t. Rather, it seems to be a return to the kind of experimentation that put him on the map with Chan Is Missing. But that film boasted a certain rough grace and characters the viewer could care about. The Center of the World, for all its apparent intent, is singularly graceless and cursed with two characters with all the charisma usually found in the DMV line and the emotional depth of a mud puddle. The story concerns a burgeoning Internet millionaire, Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard, Boys Don’t Cry) and the deal he makes with stripper and wanna-be drummer Florence (Molly Parker, Last Wedding) to spend some time with him in Las Vegas. Richard — being the somewhat nebbishy, plaid-clad, video-game-playing, online-porn-ogling character that he is — agrees to shell out $10,000 to Florence, despite her rather stringent rules: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration and set hours for when anything at all takes place. We, of course, know from the onset that every rule is going to be broken before the film’s brief 86-minute running time is over. It’s just a question of when and how. This might have been intriguing, but The Center of the World is just too damned concerned with being the new century’s answer to Last Tango in Paris — and it can’t make the grade. It starts out promisingly, but soon degenerates into sex scenes that aren’t erotic and banal discussions (often badly acted) that tell us nothing we don’t know. The saddest thing about the ultimate failure of Wang’s film is that it wants to be a commentary on the isolation of our age, only to succumb to that very isolation. It also trades away any hope for meaningful perception on the premise that its cheesily “daring” bits will generate some interest. Sure, the movie illustrates an unusual use for a lollipop and cooks up an experiment involving ice and Tabasco Sauce, but so what? It makes no real comment by doing so and aesthetically is about on par with an online sex site. Where Wang does score lies in his decision to shoot the movie on digital video. This might have been nothing more than a ho-hum attempt at “realism,” but Wang (thankfully) takes it considerably further, using the medium in an anything but realistic manner. His film alternates between eye-searing, day-glo color and scenes where nearly all the color has been bled from the image. This actually gives the proceedings more insight than anything about its labored script. There’s a remarkable bit where everything is black and white, except for the video game Richard’s playing. In this one moment, Wang nails Richard’s isolation from the real world. This modern-day entrepreneur’s reality exists only on a monitor screen. It’s a brilliant moment, but it’s only a moment — a moment in which Wang says pretty much everything he has to say. The problem is he keeps saying it over and over in other, less clever, ways until the message itself loses all meaning. The film is certainly worth seeing for Wang’s adventurous use of the digital video medium. Unfortunately, the innovative technology just isn’t in support of a film worthy of the effort.
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