(Note: this review has been shortened by three seconds for readers in Cincinnati.)
In 1990, Richard Gere and a then pretty much unknown named Julia Roberts teamed up to create the blockbuster Pretty Woman. It was a semi-charming story about a hooker who meets a rich guy and in a cash-for-sex proposition ends up falling in love with him. The ending, at least for cynics such as myself, had "trite, happy Hollywood ending" written all over it, leaving it as a shallow crowd-pleaser. (Warning: do not attempt to be a cynic at home. I am a professional.) The basic plot was reworked for a new movie that appeared in art house theaters in 2001.
This past summer brought many things to my home city of Cincinnati. Racial riots, for one thing. The other was a massive controversy in censorship perpetuated by The Esquire Theatre. The victim was director Wayne Wang's The Center of the World, which Artisan has competently brought to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard—Boys Don't Cry) is a millionaire twentysomething dotcommer who basically has nothing better to do than stay at home and play Quake on his computer, watch on-line pornography, and venture to strip clubs. At some point in the not too distant past, he meets Florence (Molly Parker), a stripper who he takes a fondness to. In a strict cash-for-sex proposition, he offers $10,000 to Florence if she'll go away to Las Vegas with him for a weekend. Flo eventually gives in, but a set of rules are set forth beforehand, such as no kissing and no intercourse. (Does this sound vaguely familiar yet?) Of course, Richard has no intention of adhering to these rules and is hoping that the time they spend together will get Florence to develop a real attraction towards him. And that's all there is to the plot, actually. There are a couple of subplots that distract from the main story. One involves a client meeting that Richard is ditching to be with Florence, and the other involves a friend of Flo's who tries to get in on the action to score some cash.
I'm not really sure what to say about The Center of the World. On one hand I should applaud Wayne Wang for making a daring movie about relationships, albeit dysfunctional ones. The film really centers around the sex scenes, some of which are relatively steamy, and there's one point of the film that drew some controversy (but more on that in a moment). On the other hand, all this film really has to offer is the sex scenes. When there isn't any nudity on the screen, Wang tries to fill time with some really lousy dialogue and some truly poor subplots. At one point Richard declares that the Center of the World is in Cyberspace, while Flo contends that the Center of the World is just south of her waist and between her legs, although in not-so-nice of terms. The whole concept sounds limp when it comes out of the mouths of the characters. With the elimination of the bad dialogue and subplots, there's really nothing here that couldn't have been done (or for all I know hasn't been done) on a 30-minute episode of The Red Shoe Diaries. Dragging it out for 90 minutes was unnecessary.
This is not to say that the acting is bad; quite the opposite, in fact. There's a great deal of bravery that the actors need to muster up to perform in a movie of this nature, and both of the principal actors are up to the task. Richard is portrayed with a vast level of immaturity, which makes sense. Richard's time is largely spent in front of a computer, something that may be too commonplace in this day and age, and as such his social skills, especially those concerning the opposite sex, seem to be diminished. On the other hand, Florence has all the appearances of a person who's managed to detach herself from any sort of relationship due to her chosen profession. Sarsgaard and Parker, respectively, hit the marks they need to hit even though there really isn't a whole lot to work with in regards to the script. The supporting cast is terrible and deserves no mention, but luckily, they aren't on screen for too long.
The story, whether intentional or not, really parallels Pretty Woman in several ways. There's the $10,000 cash for sex offer, a friend tries to interfere and ruin the deal, and the female lead helps broker something of a business deal as the worlds of legitimate business and sordid sex lives collide. The only exception to the parallel is the lack of a happy ending to The Center of the World, which now makes me realize that maybe the studio did the right thing with Pretty Woman. (Note: this is not an endorsement of Pretty Woman. Do not attempt to watch Pretty Woman at home. I am a professional.) The resolution of the film might very well be somewhat shocking, but after a boring film, and after realizing that you really don't care about these characters in any way whatsoever, you really just don't care about the story.
Wang's cinematography lends me to believe that The Center of the World is really two different films. The first film is a softcore pornography with meticulous camera direction and editing. The second is a dialogue-laden piece with the camera work of The Blair Witch Project. The juxtaposition of these styles might be clever to some, or might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it just doesn't work. The Blair Witch Project had a reason to be filmed in the manner it was filmed and The Center of the World looks inadequate once the viewer notices these differences in the cinematography. Once something like that is noticed it distracts from the film itself, and that's a problem.
The transfer of The Center of the World is competent, though not spectacular. You will notice that this is a low budget film, but Artisan has done a decent job of getting it onto DVD. The 5.1 soundtrack is sorely underused. As far as the extras go, there is a director's commentary of select scenes of The Center of the World which unfortunately doesn't really give enough insight into why the controversial scene was left in. Artisan has also included "Behind the Cyberscenes," which is a "making of" documentary of the film's web site. Trust me when I say that this has all the fun and excitement of repainting the spare bedroom in your house, though it's slightly more exhilarating than watching the paint actually dry. There's also a DVD-ROM feature containing music samples from the soundtrack, but since my computer is woefully inadequate, I'll simply mention that it's on there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Critics repeatedly used one word when The Center of the World was in theaters, and that would be "daring." I even used it above but I thought I should translate that for you from The Movie Cynic Handbook™.
Daring—a term used to describe a film that isn't particularly good, tries to make a moderately important social statement, and shows a whole lot of skin. Typically used to make it sound like you aren't completely insulting the film but secretly acknowledging that you dig naked chicks.
During the selective commentary presented on the DVD for The Center of the World, Wayne Wang talks about a scene in which a stripper removes a lollipop from an orifice which typically does not have lollipops placed in it and then places it in the mouth of one of her slack-jawed patrons. From what I could tell this scene had absolutely nothing to do with the story or any of the main characters (none of whom were present in the scene, unless I missed something from the shock). Yet Wang contends that this was a scene that he needed to leave in the film. I simply ask "Why?" Why do you put a completely extraneous scene of dubious content in the film if it contributes absolutely nothing to the story? The only reason I can think of was that Wang wanted to see if he could get away with it, and that's it. Also mentioned on the commentary track is the fact that The Esquire Theatre in Cincinnati (though Wang gets his facts wrong and states it was in Cleveland) removed three seconds (5 feet of film stock) from this scene. Apparently the ownership of The Esquire was either afraid that people would be offended (this was their excuse) or more likely they were afraid of being prosecuted under Cincinnati's strict obscenity laws (man, this town really needs an enema). This is no different then the video store owners who censored the naughty parts out of Titanic to make it "family-oriented" and "better" (though they should have removed the Celine Dion song instead of Kate Winslett's nipples, in my humble opinion). Either way, The Esquire deserves all the bad press they received (links are below for your convenience) and I would suggest that the next time they're presented with such a dilemma they should simply opt not to show the film. (Note: do not try to censor a film at home. It's very naughty.)
There's one last thing that really bothered me about The Center of the World. Good movies tend to have rich, intricate plots that can legitimately misdirect the audience into believing something that isn't true. When these plot devices are used properly you end up with a classic like The Usual Suspects. Remembering that The Center of the World does not have a happy ending, I'll mention that there's a moment where Flo confesses to a friend that she could really be falling for Richard when, at the end of the film, we discover that nothing is further from the truth. The scene is there to wrongfully misdirect the audience so that they'll feel something, anything, at the film's climax. Instead, you realize that the director and writers tried to pull a cheap trick on you, and it makes the ending all the more hollow and frustrating.
The Center of the World really doesn't seem too much more than a softcore pornography curiosity piece that attempts to make a statement about relationships though I'm not really sure what that statement might be, given the context. This DVD is perfectly acceptable for an evening's entertainment unless you have something better to do, like tending to your collection of molds, spores, and fungi.
The Center of the World is guilty of trying too hard to provoke a pointless controversy, though Artisan is let off the hook this time for a decent presentation.
The Esquire Theatre, on the other hand, is guilty of censoring the work of an artist, no matter how poor that work might actually be.
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Scales of Justice
• Select Scene Commentary by Wayne Wang and Patrick Lindenmaier
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