Date: 06-15-1995; Publication: Magill's Survey of Cinema; Author:

Age and class conflict in this romantic comedy starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader. Sarandon plays Nora Baker, a forty-three- year-old fast-food worker who drinks to forget that her son died from alcohol and drug abuse. Spader plays Max Baron, a twenty-seven-year- old advertising executive mourning the death of his wife in a car accident. Sex draws them together, as Max and Nora battle their differences and the antagonism of Max's friends and achieve true love.

WHITE PALACE is director Luis Mandoki's second film to deal with the subject of unconventional love affairs. In his previous film, GABY--A TRUE STORY (1987), Mandoki dramatized the life of Gabriela Brimmer, a woman born with cerebral palsy who overcomes her physical limitations to enjoy a rich and dynamic life, which includes a love affair with a young man with similar physical handicaps and a lifelong loving relationship with her Mexican nanny. With WHITE PALACE, Mandoki examines a less unique but still atypical relationship, one between a financially successful and fastidious young Jewish man and a sloppy, middle-aged, former Catholic waitress from the poor side of town.

Max Baron (James Spader) is a successful account executive for a large advertising firm with a beautiful apartment located in upscale St. Louis. He is young, handsome, and has many friends who are continually trying to arrange dates for him with young, attractive women. Max is still suffering from the loss of his beautiful young wife, Janey, however, who died in a car crash two years earlier. His apartment is filled with reminders of their life together, especially photographs of her smiling, vibrant face.

Max arrives home one evening and prepares for a bachelor party given for his best friend, Neil (Jason Alexander). Max is in charge of supplying food for the event and, after donning an elegant tuxedo-- the style of the evening--picks up a large supply of hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant, the White Palace. When he arrives at the party, he discovers that he has been cheated out of some of the burgers that he ordered. Feeling demeaned and wanting revenge against the waitress who cheated him out of his forty-nine-cent burgers, Max returns to the restaurant and creates a scene in front of the crowd of hungry customers. The haggard and overworked waitress, sweaty, unkempt, and irritated over Max's loud demands for a refund, still possesses enough sense of humor to give Max a slow, piercing glare and refer to him as "Mr. Astaire," because of his elegant outfit, before giving him his refund.

When Max returns to the bachelor party, Neil is showing old slides of himself and his friends, and one of the slides is of Janey as a young girl. Max stares transfixed at the image of his dead wife, who was also his childhood sweetheart. After the party, Neil approaches Max and tells him that he has to get over Janey and learn to enjoy life again. He calls Max a necrophiliac and insists that his self-pitying attitude is wearing thin.

Max, thinking over Neil's words as he drives home, impulsively stops at a sleazy bar and orders a drink. Sitting across the bar is the waitress from the White Palace, who recognizes Max. She stumbles over to him, introducing herself as Nora Baker (Susan Sarandon) and offering to buy him a drink. Max wants nothing to do with the cheaply dressed, brazenly forward older woman and, after two strong drinks and some polite conversation about his activities of the evening and his marital status, he prepares to leave. When Nora asks about his wife and he answers that she died, Nora suddenly bursts into a fit of raucous laughter, then calms down and mutters that the same thing happened to her with her twelve-year-old son, whom she says died of leukemia several years earlier. Max mumbles that he is sorry for her, then stumbles out to his car. Nora follows and asks for a ride home, to which Max reluctantly agrees.

Arriving at Nora's house, located in the poor district of the city, a thoroughly intoxicated Max runs over Nora's mailbox in her front yard. Nora, in between bursts of uncontrollable laughter, offers to fix some coffee so he can sober up. Instead, Max passes out on her living room sofa, surrounded by half-empty fast-food cartons, cigarette butts, and other messy clutter. During the night, he dreams of making love with Janey and suddenly wakes to find Nora initiating sex with him. He resists only for a moment and then asks for more, which Nora enthusiastically supplies.

In the morning, Max briefly examines Nora's home which, amid the dirt and clutter, is adorned with posters and cheap statuettes of Marilyn Monroe, Nora's idol. When Nora asks him if she will ever see him again, he says no and walks out of the house. Later, when he is visiting Janey's grave with his mother (Renee Taylor), however, Max recalls the passion and excitement he felt when making love with Nora. He returns to her house with a new mailbox, offering to replace the one he damaged. Before he has time to install the mailbox, he and Nora are in each other's arms, rolling on her messy floor.

Max begins spending most of his spare time with Nora. He neglects his job and his friends, who leave messages on his answering machine which he does not return. One evening, he gives a present to Nora--a portable mini-vacuum. Nora is outraged and yells, "You can bring me flowers. You can bring me Jello. You don't bring me cleaning equipment!" and tells him to go. Max leaves, but later returns with flowers, food, and an apology. After he departs, Nora cleans her house.

Max cannot decide if he should invite Nora to Neil's upcoming wedding. During an evening together, Nora senses his nervousness and asks him to explain, which he refuses to do. Max makes a feeble excuse to avoid taking Nora to the wedding and attends the event alone. Afterward, he visits Nora and finds her sitting in darkness, her electricity shut off because of her inability to pay her bills. When Max tries to comfort her, she rejects his concern and accuses him of lying about his whereabouts for the evening. He admits that he had not told her the truth, and she replies that she cannot tolerate deception in a relationship. The two realize that their attraction for each other has progressed beyond frenzied lust and they are drawn even closer together.

The next morning, Max is awakened by the unexpected arrival of Nora's sister, Judy (Eileen Brennan), a borderline gypsy with psychic abilities. When she attempts to give Max a psychic reading, he scoffs at first but soon becomes frightened by her uncanny ability to read his troubled soul. Before she leaves, Judy tells Max the truth about Nora's son Charlie, that he died of drug and alcohol abuse, not leukemia. When Max visits Nora again, it is with more tenderness and compassion than ever before.

While Max and Nora shop for groceries one evening, Max encounters Neil's new wife, Rachel (Rachel Levin), who invites him to their Thanksgiving dinner. With Nora secretly watching from another part of the store, Max hesitates to accept the invitation, still fearing the reception he will receive when he arrives with his new, middle-aged, and uncouth lover. The two return to Max's apartment where she accuses him of still covering up pertinent information about his feelings for her. He finally agrees to take her with him to the Thanksgiving dinner and introduce her to his friends.

When they arrive at the dinner, Nora is put off by the upscale sophistication of Max's friends. Nora insults one of the female guests and later berates Neil's father when he tries to call himself a member of the working class. She storms out of the house and accuses Max of deceiving her again, of not really wanting to take her to the dinner, and of being ashamed of her unsophisticated ways. Max accuses her of lying to him about the true fate of her son, but she replies that such information is none of his business. Max says it is his business because, like his past, her own past affects their relationship, but Nora orders him out of her house.

After several days, Max tries to contact Nora, only to find that she has quit her job and moved from her house, leaving no forwarding address. Trying to adjust to this sudden turn of events, Max attends a party given by an attractive young woman who has expressed interest in him. During the party, however, Max realizes that he is now out of place in these surroundings and abruptly leaves the party. He drives to New York, where Nora's sister lives. Judy tells Max where to find Nora, and he discovers her at her new job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant. Nora is first outraged that Max has followed her. She tells him that she has just begun to feel better about herself and that their relationship is over, ruined by their differences and Max's inability to accept her for who she is. Max confesses that he is not ashamed of her, that he is ashamed of himself. He tells her that he has quit his job and moved from his apartment, and that he wants to return to his former profession as a teacher. Nora realizes his sincerity, and the two playfully hug each other while lying on top of one of the restaurant tables, to the delight of the other patrons.

WHITE PALACE is a standard boy-meets-girl story with a couple of quirky variations. Director Mandoki wants to present Max and Nora as almost completely opposite in their beliefs and backgrounds. Max is young, Jewish, successful, and neat. He lives in an impeccably decorated apartment adorned with pictures of his martyred dead wife, listens to classical music, and is associated with friends who share similar backgrounds and tastes. Nora is crass, middle-aged, poor, and sloppy. Her house is a mess, her musical preference is the Oak Ridge Boys, and she lives the life of a recluse surrounded by pictures of her martyred idol, Marilyn Monroe. Mandoki and screenwriters Ted Tally and Alvin Sargent nearly overdo the differences between Max and Nora. They also overemphasize the key likeness of the two characters, the fact that they are both traumatically scarred by the loss of the greatest love of their individual lives. The filmmakers come dangerously close to trivializing the lives of their characters, making the film a simplistic love story based on the "opposites attract" cliche. What saves the film from buckling under its story line, however, is the tough, sincere dialogue, the emphasis in the directing on intimate and honest confrontations between the principals, and the superb acting by James Spader and, most especially, Susan Sarandon.

Mandoki's handling of a more traditional love story is more successful than his previous film's examination of a much more unique love story, that of Gabriela Brimmer and her ability to express love and affection despite severe physical handicaps. In the previous film, the love scenes, although touching and explicit, seemed too standard, too tame, despite the honest approach to the story. With WHITE PALACE, the story seems tame while the relationship between the two principals is filled with blunt, raw honesty. Filmed with numerous close-ups in intimate interior settings and lit with warm, earthy browns and muted reds, the confrontations between Nora and Max become much more intense and direct. Sarandon delivers her lines with a flat and basic honesty, her observations and insights into Spader's character ringing true every time. Even though the two characters are opposites, it is easy to see why Max is attracted to Nora--she is honest, something he is not used to in his sterile, upscale world of appearances. Spader has a more difficult time with his lines, which are full of apologies and theatrical flourishes that seem jarring when compared with Sarandon's less showy delivery. For example, when Max attends the party given by a potential new girlfriend, he makes too much of the fact that her Dust Buster mini-vacuum hanging on the wall has no dust in it. The scene is far too theatrical, as is his first confrontation with Nora in the restaurant when he demands to have his money back. Spader is much better communicating with body language and facial expressions, especially in the scene where he confronts Nora in the bar; he is able to show dread, revulsion, bewilderment, and ultimately compassion without saying a word.

Sarandon dazzles as the crass, aging, fleshy Nora. When she is first glimpsed behind the counter at the White Palace, she is almost unrecognizable, her face smeared with sweat, her hair and her cheap waitress uniform spattered with grease, and her voice laced with an irritating Southern twang. She is hardly the sexy temptress that she has played in such films as ATLANTIC CITY (1981), THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987), and BULL DURHAM (1988). Nevertheless, because of the intense honesty she brings to her character, to the explicit sex scenes and to the scenes in which she insists that Max quit deceiving her about his reluctance to accept her for who she really is, Sarandon's Nora is the sexiest and most attractive character that she has portrayed to date.

WHITE PALACE could have easily become a bland and uninspired Yuppie- boy-meets-lower-class-girl love story. The success of the film must be attributed primarily to the filmmakers' belief in the film's message--that love can transcend impossible obstacles--as well as the skill of the actors in communicating that message to the viewer with honesty and conviction. (Reviewed by Jim Kline.)

Review Sources:
America. CLXIII, November 24, 1990, p. 407.
Chicago Tribune. October 19, 1990, VII, p. 47.
The Hollywood Reporter. CCCXIV, October 17, 1990, p. 5.
Los Angeles Times. October 19, 1990, p. F1.
The New York Times. October 19, 1990, p. B4.
Newsweek. CXVI, October 22, 1990, p. 72.
Rolling Stone. November 15, 1990, p. 162.
Time. CXXXVI, November 12, 1990, p. 103.
Variety. October 17, 1990, p. 2.
The Wall Street Journal. October 18, 1990, p. A14.
The Washington Post. October 19, 1990, p. D1.

(Thank you, Terri!)