Lap top

Wang's World explores sexuality of dotcom generation

In Wayne Wang's The Center of the World, a young hacker millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard) offers a stripper (Molly Parker) $10,000 to spend a weekend in Las Vegas with him. She agrees but, asserting that she's not a prostitute, insists on certain conditions: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration and no talking about feelings.

The last rule proves the most treacherous, since feelings are such tricky things. The word itself can refer to both sensation and emotion, and in the sexual realm the one can be mistaken for other. A frank look at how people use sex both as communication and as a substitute for it, The Center of the World proves unabashedly steamy and inquisitive about erotic matters, but at times it seems barely skin deep.

In most ways Sarsgaard's Richard is a Hollywood version of a newly rich dotcom programmer. He lives in squalor among moldering pizza boxes and multiple monitors, one of which displays a site called "Sorority House Shower." He shows no interest in the high stakes of his company's impending IPO and seems to prefer machines to people, based on such details as his ease with technical jargon and his fondness for violent computer games.

Still, he shows no shyness when he strikes up a conversation with Parker's Florence in a coffeehouse — and apart from needing to comb his hair, Sarsgaard makes an unusually handsome hacker. Learning that Florence plays drums in a thrash band but strips to pay the bills, he begins paying for lap dances, which lead to his proposal for their Vegas trip. The film seems to suggest that it's no surprise that a rich hacker would pay for companionship.

The Center of the World is nicely attuned to the awkward boundaries of the sex industry, from the "no touching" rule of lap dances to Richard and Florence's even more ritualized trysts in Vegas: Their sex play, set to smoky techno music, only takes place between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Before their first night together we watch the willowy, beautiful Parker applying her makeup, putting on a mask for her audience of one.

Wang and novelist Paul Auster, his collaborator on Smoke, contributed to Center's story, with Ellen Benjamin Wong solely credited with the screenplay, which realistically reveals the excitement of sexual discovery. When Richard whispers a fantasy in Florence's ear, she says, "The Chinese call that 'Fire and Ice.'" He replies "No! There's a name for that?" (Whatever it is, an ice cube is involved.) An earlier shot from Florence's strip tease involves a lollipop and should cause candy sales to skyrocket. Center displays a lot of flesh, but with certain inhibitions, as each actor always seems to be wearing at least one article of clothing.

In their "off hours," Florence and Richard share meals, take in sights and josh around: Encountering one of his college roommates, she pretends to be a lingerie designer with a Southern accent and a dirty mouth. But when she feels genuinely attracted to him, she's unsettled by the breaks in her own reserve, especially after an encounter with her friend Jerri. Played by Carla Gugino, she's the opposite of Florence: impulsive, uncontrolled and subject to far more pain and pleasure than Florence allows herself. In their scenes, Parker and Gugino nicely play off each other's differences.

Apart from its use of a digital camera to get up-close and personal, The Center of the World doesn't really break ground in comprehending the pleasures of the flesh. It ends up being something of a "junior" version of Last Tango in Paris but lacks that film's willingness to delve into all facets of its characters. For that matter, the glossy soft-core titillater 9 1/2 Weeks conveyed more genuine pleasure and creativity in its carnal games.

At one point Richard says that his computer feels like the center of the globe, while later Florence counters that the world is centered around the female anatomy. The lines rather nakedly tie the film's themes to its title, and it doesn't really make any statements more profound than those. But The Center of the World's locale superbly fits its story, since neither Richard nor Florence seem ready for real intimacy, and the ersatz international landmarks of Vegas prove poor substitutes for the real thing.??