Aiming to be the "Last Tango" in Paris for the wired generation, "The Center of the World" is eroticism filtered through the self-aware consciousness of the intelligentsia. Like Bernardo Bertolucci before him, director Wayne Wang manages to have his cake and eat it, too: He's made a frankly sexual film that titillates while commenting on its own obsession with carnal pleasures.
The story was conceived by Wang ("Chinese Box," "Slamdance"), who wrote the script with husband-and-wife novelists Paul Auster (Smoke) and Siri Hustvedt, but this film's sensibility belongs to the fourth collaborator, 20-something multimedia artist Miranda July. Hers is a digital world, and Wang honors that spirit by shooting this intimate tale in crisp digital video. "The Center of the World" looks fresh and contemporary, even if its attitudes aren't different from Bertolucci's 1973 "Tango," when the sexual revolution's euphoria was already beginning to sour.
Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) and Florence (Molly Parker) are emblematic of a generation that's been both eroticized and demoralized. A boomtime computer whiz rewarded with an instant fortune, Richard has retreated to his womblike apartment and is linked to the outside world primarily by the Internet's umbilical cord. He's a prototypical cybergeek, but Florence is a more complex figure for the 2001 time capsule. An indie-rock drummer and upscale stripper, she's a strange amalgamation of female freedom, desire and expectations, a woman eager to forge her own path by exploiting her own sexuality.
When Wang and company send them to Las Vegas (the adult theme park that perfectly encapsulates the American desire to sin safely), it's to ponder the function of commerce in male-female sexual relationships. But amid the coolly intellectual deliberations, the heart of this world is found through the magnificently complex performances of Parker ("Kissed") and Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry"), who manage to get at something deeper.
Despite Florence's edict that they can't ponder their feelings (or engage in typically heterosexual intercourse), this couple find it impossible to distance themselves from the powerful emotions stirred up in their hermetically sealed luxury suite. Richard and Florence have been weaned on the doctrine of voyeurism yet break its cardinal rule: Look but don't touch, it dictates. That way, you won't ever have to really connect.