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Amy Sohn | The Nation

Amy Sohn

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Amy Sohn

Amy Sohn, author of the novel Run Catch Kiss (Simon & Schuster), is unattached at the moment.

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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!

Wang's ending is far darker than Pretty Woman's, and his intent is to show that money is a corruptive, alienating force (though the dot-com crash makes his take seem outré). Director of, among other films, The Joy Luck Club, Chan Is Missing and the chick flick Anywhere But Here, Wang has stated that he is "pro-woman" and that in The Center of the World he wanted "to show audiences how strong this character is, in spite of what she has to sacrifice."

Yet the Florence he has written comes off as little more than a computer geek's wet dream; she moves sexily but doesn't have much to say. Despite one intriguing monologue about having held a job rescuing people from locked cars, she is devoid of nuance. When she pulls at a beer morosely we know she's "numbing herself"; when she applies lipstick we know she's "putting on an act"; when she stands in front of an empty pool we know her "life is hollow." Even her nurselike name is too obvious by half. Furthermore, the guy she falls for seems like such a socially inept loser that it's hard to see even a glimpse of what draws her to him.

In the final moments of the film Wang gives us a shot of Florence pounding away on her drums, but she comes off as bruised and weakened, more vulnerable than before. Though financially richer she is emotionally bereft and may never open herself up again. She doesn't seem strong, she seems wrecked for life.

Bridget Jones's Diary, written by Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis and directed by Sharon Maguire, supplies its heroine with a Hollywood ending but also gives her a rich character, a sense of humor and a brain. While Florence is slender, cool and matte, Bridget (Renée Zellweger) is chunky, compulsive and sweaty. Yet she's a striving compulsive sweater, so her plight plays as engaging.

After well-off barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) snubs Bridget at a party, she develops a crush on her publishing-house boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Charmed by Daniel's smarmy wit, and status, she moonily gazes at him in his glass-walled office as he types on a flat-screen monitor and takes important calls. When he makes a sexual advance, she doesn't press charges but instead sends him a joking e-mail stating, "How dare you sexually harass me in this appalling manner?" and shows up to work the next day in a see-through top.

The blatant flirting is mined for comedy over sex appeal: She's thwarting the rules brazenly but seems prepared to accept the consequences; she seems less a slut than a kook. Though we know she's flirting with disaster we get the feeling that no matter what happens, she'll pick herself up and brush herself off.

Daniel's entire modus operandi with Bridget is to banter in a mock-sexist way. He calls her "bitch," "orders" her to come to dinner with him, and when she asks if he loves her after some kinky (read: anal) sex, says, "Shut up or I'll do it again." Yet Bridget is no pushover herself; she seems capable of matching him tit for tat. She blows him off the first time he shows interest, calls him a "stupid ass," challenges him when she's suspicious of his behavior and tells him how she feels.

When Daniel inevitably betrays and rejects her, Bridget is forced not only to get over her broken heart but also to get a new job--because she can't stand to be around him. Getting screwed gets her screwed; though she didn't exactly sell her booty, now she's out on it. But before she leaves she publicly humiliates him, in a clever Tootsie-like outburst, cheered on by her female co-workers.

Instead of mourning her state of unemployment she sees her situation as an excuse to look for a better job, and she winds up getting one, as a television producer. Her new boss puts her on the air, she snags (with some help) a good story and is catapulted to celebrity.

The high career status helps to empower her--when Daniel comes crawling back with his tail between his legs, telling her, "If I can't make it with you, I can't make it with anyone," she thinks for a second and then tells him she's "not willing to gamble my life on someone who's not quite sure.... I'm still looking for something more extraordinary than that." In the end she snags her extraordinary man, but, more important, she gets her act together, while Florence in The Center of the World may never do so.

One of the keystones of Helen Fielding's book Bridget Jones's Diary was Bridget's daily, self-flagellating listing of the alcohol, calorie and cigarette units she consumed. While the joke got stale after the first few pages, women related to this tallying, because it anchored its heroine in a sensual life. Like many conflicted single women, Bridget was a hedonist striving for self-control.

The film maintains sensuality as a theme: In almost every scene we glimpse Bridget coming into contact with the physical world. We watch her wriggle into her panties, inhale countless cigarettes, slurp margaritas through a straw, spoon down cereal, wax her pubic area, get dough on her face, fall on the floor. Some of the jokes play off as pale imitations of Lucille Ball but most of them feel hilariously true-to-life.

While most romantic comedies feature scenes in which the heroine falls on her ass (as Janeane Garofalo put it, all a beautiful woman has to do to be funny is fall down a lot or act stupid), the heroines never seem to get a hair out of place in the process. But Renée gets filthier than Julia, Jennifer or J-Lo. Bridget is literally a mess--unlike Florence in The Center of the World, who, in spite of the fact that she has sex in almost every scene, never gets mussed in the slightest.

The one Bridget Jones fluid we don't get to see is blood--that is saved for Glenn Close, whom Bridget, in a postdump slump, mournfully watches in Fatal Attraction on TV. As the quintessential psychotic single gal of the late1980s gets shot to death by her lover's wife, Bridget's eyes pop out of her head in bemused wonder. She seems to be saying, "Is this what's in store for me?" Yet her glance has a slyness that lets us know she's not really worried, that she thinks Adrian Lyne got it wrong, that Fatal Attraction was a piece of crap. The moment works as a comment on the future of women in movies. In the post-Bridget Jones era, women get to mock the misogynistic standbys, not live in them. With Helen Fielding rapidly eclipsing Adrian Lyne as an A-list Hollywood player, perhaps we'll see more films where pithy careerist single gals can meet ends cheerier than a bullet wound.