When the guy I'm seeing, Dan, invited me to the Wayne Wang film The Center of the World I felt sure it would lead to a hot night. The movie poster featured a stripper licking a lollipop and I'd heard that Wang had collaborated on the script with novelist Paul Auster. The film sounded sexy but erudite, kind of like me. "I hear it's a feminist, indie Pretty Woman," Dan said, "and supposedly the sex is real." That was enough to catapult me into a seat, but after ten minutes watching the pretentious, digital-video-shot claptrap the only emotion swirling in me was disgust at Wang's fake take on female power.
Bridget Jones's Diary, on the other hand, was low on my list of movie priorities. Though like every other single woman I'd enjoyed the book, I just didn't get the Renéeacute;e Zellweger appeal, and I was convinced the adaptation would be glossy and corny. So when my friend Emily asked me to accompany her, I agreed only in the interest of female bonding. As Emily happily gobbled Whoppers and laughed at every joke, I rolled my eyes and shook my head. But by the time I got to Renée lip-synching to "All By Myself" I was a goner, crushed out on the character, hooked on the film. It was so bizarre: The indie erotic drama's take on women proved shallow and unbelievable, while the mainstream mega-hit pretty much got women right. Who knew?
The Center of the World was directed by Wayne Wang and written by Wang and Auster under the pseudonym Ellen Benjamin Wong from a story by Wang, Auster, novelist Siri Hustvedt and multimedia artist Miranda July. The plot revolves around an Internet entrepreneur named Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) who pays Florence, a stripper (Molly Parker), $10,000 to spend three nights with him in a Las Vegas hotel. Florence, an aspiring rock drummer, needs the money but wants to set limits, so she insists that there be no talk about feelings, no kissing on the mouth and no penetration. Each night will begin at 10 and end at 2, and she even finagles herself a Woolfean room of her own.
Night one goes without a hitch--she puts on a tight dress, does an erotic dance for Richard and after telling him she doesn't want to go fast, brings him to orgasm in about three minutes. But by night two, after they go out on the town and share some laughs, the attractive grungers begin to fall for each other, and everything gets confusing. Caught up in a playful moment, Florence kisses Richard on the mouth and immediately regrets it, insisting, "We have to stick to the agreement.... If we don't play by the rules this isn't going to work." The relationship must be kept fiduciary; feelings complicate money.
Yet the couple can't stick to the rules--each gets broken and love quickly erupts into violence. In the denouement Florence lies on the bed, intones, "You want real? I'll give you real," masturbates in front of him (always a pleasant way to say goodbye) and the two lovers part ways and return to their isolated, empty lives.
The film strives for a gritty, intellectual tone--like Wang and Auster's previous collaboration, the pseudo-gritty, pseudo-intellectual Smoke. But despite The Center of the World's low-light, digital-video format and indie-cred cast, the premise is an old misogynistic crowd-pleaser: hooker falls for her john. This timeless tale has roots in Jane Eyre and Pygmalion and was featured more recently in Leaving Las Vegas, Indecent Proposal and the genre-defining standard, Pretty Woman, in which Julia Roberts, America's sweetwhore, similarly insisted on no mouth-to-mouth.
It's a tale men never tire of: You pay a woman to sleep with you but she likes it, meaning you, so much that she wants to keep doing it for free. Whore can morph into wife. It's a tale with a panacean, if twisted, appeal to single women as well: If a guy can fall for a hooker, then gosh darn it, maybe I've got a chance too!