The Internet makes a great metaphor for modern social alienation, with its impersonal communication and virtual sex, but there's not much else new in this familiar story other than the erotic content. Shot on dimly lit, high-definition video, the gray, washed palette sucks the glamour and titillation right out of the spectacle, turning it into an empty, soulless exercise in physical sensation and self delusion--appropriate to this story of lonely souls unable to break through their own isolation. --Sean Axmaker
In short, if you're looking for a romantic escapist fantasy about a sex worker redeemed by the love of a good man, look elsewhere -- this film is far more complex than that.
Comparisons to "Pretty Woman" do seem inevitable however, to the point that I wonder if the director and writers weren't crafting this film as a direct response to that one, a way of saying, "Whoa boy, reality check!" The premise is familiar at least. Richard (Peter Saarsgard) is wealthy but lonely after a breakup with his girlfriend two years before. He meets Florence (Molly Parker) in a coffee shop and finds out that she is a stripper. He visits her at the strip club where she works (nicely named Pandora's Box), and is so intrigued by her that he offers her $10,000 to spend three days with him in Las Vegas. She agrees, with a number of strict conditions, including limiting the number of hours she is required to "work," and limiting the acts she will perform. "No kissing on the mouth" (sounds familiar, no?) and "no penetration" are among her limitations.
From this familiar territory, though, the film explores new ground. Richard and Florence get to know one another as they spend more time together, and Florence finds out that Richard isn't such a bad guy, just lonely. "Why do you have to be so nice?" she asks him at one point, partially angry and partially not. Richard, in the meantime, is becoming more and more deeply entranced by this woman he has hired, which becomes part of the conflict.
Given the subject of the film, there is of course a great deal of sexuality portrayed in it. It is handled pretty tastefully, and none of it is there for its own sake. It is partially through their sexual relationship that we see the growth and the limitations of the characters' relationship in general. The sex scenes are handsomely shot and are not the typical sort of scenes one might expect from an erotic film; nevertheless (perhaps because they are unique), they are extremely erotic.
The acting is quite good. We spend most of the film only seeing Richard and Florence interacting together, with just a few other characters showing up here and there, but the two lead actors have the chops to sustain the film from beginning to end. Peter Saarsgard plays a "nice guy" well, and it's good to see that he doesn't overplay it at all. He's a very real nice guy, with flaws and points where he stops being nice out of frustration or anger. Molly Parker, as Florence, lends a similar depth to her role. From the first moment you see her you can see why Richard becomes infatuated with her: she is ethereally lovely, with a husky voice that is simply enthralling. But it is her personality that Richard really falls for, and that too is portrayed believably. She is played with a genuine warmth and likeability that is often missing from erotic films, but not overly sweet like "Pretty Woman" and many other Hollywood attempts at a similar story. I suspect that Molly Parker will be a talent to watch carefully in the next few years.
The nature and limitations of the relationship between these two people -- in one sense employer and employee and in another far more intimate than that -- becomes the main subject of the film as it progresses. How much of what Florence is giving to Richard is real, and how much is an act? How does the aspect of money change what happens over that three days? Are his feelings based in reality? Are hers?
Some of these questions are answered at the end, others are left open to the viewer's interpretation. There is nothing about the end, however, that is trite or simple, and as in life, there is a great deal that will depend on the perspective of the person watching the story unfold. This is a film very much grounded in reality, dealing with real people in a realistic (if unique) situation, and in the end it avoids the typical Hollywood fantasy notions that are so common.
Comparisons to "Pretty Woman" may well be inevitable for this film, but in such comparisons "The Center of the World" comes out ahead in every category. It's not a perfect film, but it is an excellent one. It is both sexier and more realistic, and that makes it well worth watching in my book.
Quick plot summary: Nerd gets rich on software development. Meets a lap dancer. Pays her $10,000 to spend a weekend with him in Vegas. She lays down certain rules, but then accepts.
The visual style of the film is wonderful. There are images that are close to unforgettable. There are images that are close to Mapplethorpian. The story is a wonderful pendulum between reality and fantasy, between what is and what might be.
The title is explained early in the film. I leave it there for you to discover. But like the rest of the film it is both polite and raunchy.
You see the illusion. Vegas is a perfect place to watch the illusion being created. But then you see shots of Vegas that you never see. A roller coaster in downtown Vegas? For adults?
Wang directs a wonderful film. If you aren't afraid of sex, if psychological violence doesn't make you crawl, you won't be disappointed. If you can understand that illusion is the center of the universe, this is a film that will go into your permenant collection.