Sunday 13 March 2011

Movie Review: White Palace (1990)

Two souls with nothing in common except the deep lingering sorrow from the devastating loss of a loved one develop an unlikely relationship.

Max (James Spader), a twentysomething marketing manager in St. Louis, is still coming to terms with the loss of his wife in a car accident. Withdrawing from the lives of his friends, he leads a lonely, somber existence, until he meets Nora (Susan Sarandon), a fortysomething working class cashier at a greasy fast food restaurant. Nora, in addition to being a fan of Marilyn Monroe, is also suffering from the loss of her 14 year old son.

Nora smokes a lot, drinks a lot and has a messy house. Max is a neatness freak and lives in a spotless apartment. But the sex is terrific, and soon Max and Nora are spending a lot of time together. She doubts that he will ever fully let her into his middle-class life, and he doubts that he has any sort of a life to let her into. While the age gap is wide, the class divide is sharper, and both Max and Nora will need to confront their own lives to give their relationship any kind of hope.

A two-person character study, White Palace works thanks to Sarandon. Playing a subtle variation on the character that would make her a legend in 1991's Thelma and Louise, Sarandon is magnetic as Nora, hiding her loss and disappointment behind obvious brassiness. Spader suffers in comparison, his lack of emotion and nuance attempting to pass as a trait of a young, naive and hurting character, but is much more likely due to limited acting ability.

A colourful secondary cast is somewhat underused, as director Luis Mandoki keeps the focus tight on Max and Nora. Kathy Bates is Max's Mom, and we mostly just hear her voice on his answering machine. Eileen Brennan is Nora's clairvoyant sister, and basically gets two scenes. Jason Alexander, before becoming famous as George in television's Seinfeld, is the most prominent of Max's friends.

St. Louis is a refreshing change from typical movie locations, and Mandoki resists the urge to overplay the city's tourist destinations.

White Palace does not overreach, and delivers on its premise: sometimes the challenges in a relationship are not the obvious and visible disparities, but the hidden and unspoken truths.

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