, 103 min, 1990
Director: Luis Mandoki
Writers: Glenn Savan (novel), Ted Tally (screenplay) and Alvin Sargent (screenplay)
Stars: Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Jason Alexander
The first time we see him he’s heading from work to a bachelor party. The next time we see him he’s having a fit about being short changed on six of the 49 cent burgers he ordered from a Midwest fast food chain. This sends him careening into the night toward that burger joint to haggle with a waitress over his $3 refund whilst wearing a tuxedo. The waitress calls him “Fred Astaire.” The next time we see them, they’ll meet again by chance in a bar and drunkenly flirt until they go back to her hovel together.
And so begins White Palace, a film whose title, given the opening scenes, evokes a sense of doomed romantic addiction ala’ Barfly or Sid & Nancy; will this be the 90s version of heroin chic? Remarkably, it’s this kind of misdirection that makes the film so compelling right from the start; in fact, the title is in reference to the burger joint where the main characters first meet and where one of them works (ala’ White Castle, another famous – or infamous? – Midwestern food chain). In fact, it will chronicle a May-December romance from about early fall to just after Thanksgiving.
The dialogue in this opening scene suggests pigheadedness on the part of both characters, and a passionate disconnect over a seemingly unbridgeable gulf. Their next dialogue hurtles through everything from flirtatious banter that would be home in a film noir to inappropriate laughter to an improbable connection. He is Max Baron (James Spader), a 27 year old account executive in St. Louis with a sweet face, beautiful eyes and a heart made cold by profound loss at too young an age – he is a widower. She is Nora Baker (Susan Sarandon), a nearly 44 year old waitress for that White Palace burger joint who seduces young Max (nearly 20 years her junior for those inept at math), so beginning a torrid love affair.
But torrid by whose standard? By that of Max, who seems to feel dead at home and work to the point that his friends (including a newly married Jewish bachelor played by Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander) compare him to Miss Havisham, the tragic widow from Dickens’ Great Expectations, pining away for a lost love in perpetuity, yet who seems to be reinvigorated with liveliness at the very sight of Nora? Or by his friends, who he projects a lot of thoughts and feelings onto without ever seeming to give them the benefit of the doubt? Or by Nora’s, who admits that her seduction technique is pretty impressive? In a sense, the film is about all of these things. Nora is good for Max, but Max may not be good for Nora if he can’t admit she’s part of his life to the other “parts.”
The film, directed by Luis Mandoki, is an interesting exercise in tonal juggling. The opening, as I’ve suggested, shifts at near lightning speed from a generic 80s dramedy to what feels like potential neo-noir with Sarandon in the proverbial femme fatale driver’s seat, before ultimately settling into a romantic melodrama about everyday people – certainly something both in Mandoki’s wheelhouse and which the musical score betrays. There’s even a touch of the supernatural, with the sudden arrival of Nora’s older sister (Eileen Brennan), who we later discover to be employed as a psychic in New York City, but who also appears right off to be the real deal.
The screenplay, adapted from Glenn Savan’s novel by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Alvin Sargent, has fun with these tonal shifts, and yet the film is about more than simply a hot, torrid May-December affair. The film takes the situation seriously and explores all of the implications. This is not simply about an age difference, but about one of class between these two, and that is what truly sets them apart. She is a working single woman making minimum wage, and he is a young Master of the Universe on the rise whose world is all but turned upside down by this romantic development. The dialogue is literate and thoughtful, and the characters and the performances keep us guessing as to where we might end up, although the ending has the feel of a somewhat tacked-on feel-good cliche’. Mandoki too has fun with this scenario, as when after Max and Nora’s proper sexual escapades truly take flight, there’s a montage of their trysts set to K.T. Oslin’s Younger Men, a swinging country ditty that underlines the story’s true intent to that point in case you didn’t get it.
Spader has the moroseness of a widower and the guarded romanticism of a 27 year old in the wake of profound loss, and Sarandon has a number of notes to play as the proverbial “older” woman, who too feels invigorated by this sudden surge of sexual energy tempered with her own tragic past. The match is surprisingly effective, and the performances lift the material up to the realm of near-greatness. We like these characters and above all we believe in them. For a modern romantic Hollywood melodrama, this is to be commended.