Week 26 — Missouri
Romance movies don’t get a lot of love from us jaded critic types. Maybe because most of us aren’t the Casanova we wish we were. Perhaps you prefer the Schadenfreude of a good break-up story to the features commonly found in love stories — “love at first sight” or “opposites attract.” I know I do.
Genre-aversions aside, there are not a lot of movies to choose from with the Show-Me State (or the Puke State, as it’s also known) as its focal point. However — after much Googling — I was able to find several movies filmed in two of Missouri’s largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis. Of those films, the one I felt best represented the area happened to be a romance movie.
So, casting prejudices aside — as I have before by reviewing both a sports film and a movie revolving around the military (which also happened to be a love story) — I bring you this week a review of White Palace. I mean … it can’t be that bad, right? It’s got Susan Sarandon and James Spader. That’s got to count for something, yeah?
White Palace, a 1990 Universal Pictures production described by some reviewers as a “romance novel come to life” (barf!) is a romance movie that fits into the “opposites attract” theme by telling us the story of a younger man falling in love with an older woman not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, “cougars” may be in style today, but pairing up a saucy older woman with a handsome young gent is a pretty unconventional concept in film. Occasionally movies tread on that territory — The Graduate and Harold and Maude spring to mind. Certainly, it’s against the norm. For the most part, films tend to stick to the tried and true pairing of an older guy and a younger girl, or two young people in love, or two young people in love from opposite sides of the tracks who defy society and class differences to find true happiness in the arms of each other.
To be fair, the barrier separating the two lead characters in White Palace is more than just a difference in age. Age difference is probably the least of the troubles between Spader’s character, 27-year-old Max Barron, and Sarandon’s character, 40-something-year-old Nora Baker.
Max is an advertising executive. Nora is a waitress at a diner called White Palace, which serves tasty little hamburgers. (The fictional White Palace’s resemblance to a similar sounding real-life burger joint specializing in bite-sized sliders is intended, according to this source.)
Max is a compulsive neat freak. Nora is a slob.
Max is yuppie trash. Nora is trailer park trash.
Max is Jewish. Nora is something not Jewish.
Max’s friends are Reagan-era middle-class. Nora doesn’t appear to have any friends outside of White Palace — and her sister’s a psychic — and she (Nora, that is) is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe to the point that it’s annoying and probably explains her lack of friends.
There’s this convention of screwball comedies and romance movies called “meeting cute,” where two characters of clashing personalities are paired together in an awkward situation. In spite of it all, there’s always an immediate chemistry between two characters that meet cute. Max and Nora meet when Max, on the way to a bachelor party for his friend Neil (played by Jason Alexander!) picks up 50 mini-hamburgers from White Palace and discovers that he’s been shorted a few burgers. Max returns to White Palace and gets into an argument with Nora. Not only do the two characters not “meet cute,” they’re actually outright hostile to each other. It’s all worth it though, because Max gets his money refunded.
Max returns to Neil’s bachelor party just as a stripper hired to dance there is winding down her act. Max, Neil, and the rest of the boys settle down to look at some old slides — which includes a picture of Max’s wife who died in an auto accident two years prior. The photo of Max’s dead wife puts Max in a funk and he takes off from the party to drown his misery at a local dive bar, where he runs into Nora again. Nora, who may or may not be drunk, simultaneously throws herself at a clearly inebriated Max while coming across as a complete bitch — in a moment of misplaced emotions she laughs when he tells her that his wife is dead. Nora then reveals that she had a son who died. She convinces Max to give her a ride home. He crashes his car into her mailbox. She convinces him to spend the night. He passes out on her couch then wakes up to find her performing oral sex on him. A fairly gross (realistic, perhaps?) sex scene then takes place, which reveals two facts about Nora: One, personal grooming is not a priority for her and two, if you’re in her house be careful not to step on any stray sandwiches that may be lying on the floor.
One quick etiquette tip: A gentleman who finds himself in a situation commonly known as a “one night stand” should, the morning after, thank his partner for the good time and — at the very least — offer to buy coffee. What he should not do is rummage through her bedroom drawers where she may or may not keep her sex toys. Also, should he come across a — let’s just say — a “massager,” under no circumstance should a gentleman smell it. I mean it Max, or James Spader, or whoever you are.
Next, what should have been a completely regrettable one-nighter turns into a relationship when Max returns to town to pay Nora for her broken mailbox. The two predictably wind up naked and, with that, Max begins his double life. By day, he’s a buttoned-up advertising exec in a gray suit whose boss is Kathy Bates. By night, he’s the boy toy of a middle-aged waitress. It’s like Jack and Diane, if Jack was every douchey character James Spader has played in every movie from Pretty in Pink to Sex, Lies and Videotape and Diane was … Susan Sarandon.
Let me get one thing straight, Susan Sarandon is a very attractive woman. She was attractive in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, she’s attractive in this, she’s attractive today. It’s Nora who I just don’t get. She’s just … yucky. Then again, so is Max. Maybe they are perfect for each other.
No matter how compatible Max and Nora are, Max clearly has issues about how his friends will perceive Nora. At first it seems like he may try and “clean her up” before introducing him to his gang of Jason Alexander types — literally, he buys her a dustbuster for her apartment, leading to their first fight. Then, Max figures the best thing to do is keep their relationship on the down low for a while, which Nora isn’t too happy about.
Things blow up with one of two lies Max tells Nora. First, Max lies about Neil’s wedding so that he doesn’t have to take Nora. Then, after running into Neil’s wife Rachel at the supermarket, he lies about that and tells Nora that Rachel is just some woman whose name he can’t remember.
Max resolves to bring Nora, who Rachel calls his “mystery woman” with him, to Thanksgiving dinner at Rachel and Neil’s home after Rachel leaves an invitation for Max on his answering machine — but only after Nora hears the message. (Max tries to cover up the answering machine with a newspaper or coat or something, but Nora’s no dummy and spots what he’s trying to do.)
Thanksgiving dinner is a disaster. Nora and Max are made to feel uncomfortable by Neil and his family and after getting into an argument with Neil’s dad on politics, Nora storms out. I can’t remember exactly what the argument was about, but it was probably about whether or not women should shave their armpits — or the merits of keeping a spare sandwich lying around your home — or whether or not it’s polite for a gentleman to rummage through a lady’s bedside table and give her sex toys the “smell test.”
I almost forgot to mention the part where Nora’s sister Judy, the psychic, comes to visit (played by Eileen Brennan, aka, Mrs. Peacock from Clue!) Judy tells Max about how she and Nora were abandoned by their father when they were kids and how Nora was devastated over the death of her son.
None of this really matters, however, since the movie is wrapped up by the end of the last act in a neat little package with a bow on top. I’m not going to ruin the ending. I’ll just say it doesn’t involve Nora running away to New York City. It doesn’t involve Max following Nora and giving her a sobby apology which results in the reunited couple making out on top of a restaurant counter. It certainly doesn’t involve the jaded New York City diners erupting into cheers.
White Palace is the kind of movie I would recommend to somebody’s parents, if it weren’t for the nasty sex scenes. It’s probably not a movie I would recommend to one of my friends.
It’s competently directed. Before White Palace, Mexico-born director Luis Mandaki directed Gaby: A True Story (1987), a critically-acclaimed film for which actress Norma Aleandro was nominated for an Oscar. After that, he floundered around in Hollywood for a while before returning to Mexico to direct Innocent Voices (2004), another award-winning film. I don’t know if Mandaki’s directing style somehow loses something in translation when he directs English-language films, but it’s obvious he excels in his native language.
So, there’s stuff to like to like about White Palace. Sarandon and Spader are a great pair. There’s even chemistry between the two. It’s just too bad the ending had to be such a cliche.
There are a lot of romance movies out there that don’t follow formula, most of them existing in the world of indie cinema. Might I recommend Hannah Takes the Stairs (Available on Netflix Instant Watch!) or Alexander the Last (Also available on Netflix Instant Watch!), both directed by “mumblecore” auteur Joe Swanberg. Or how about just good old Garden State?
My final verdict: White Palace probably is best left for fans on Sarandon or Spader. Missouri natives might enjoy it if only to play “spot the location.” (The White Palace diner from the movie is a real diner located at 18th and Olive streets in St. Louis, formerly called the White Knight and now The Super Sandwich Shop.)
For the rest of us, move along. There’s nothing to see here.
White Palace on YouTube
So, I just now learned that there’s a whole group of people out there who are making music videos using clips from White Palace set to smooth jazz and other really bad music. I’ll spare you by not including any of those links.
Matt D.’s Top Five Forbidden Romances in Film
5. Harold and Maude (1971), directed by Hal Ashby — One man. One feisty old lady. (Click here to add this to your Netflix Instant Queue!)
4. Lolita (1962), directed by Stanley Kubrick — One man. One nymphette.
3. Spanking the Monkey (1994), directed by David O. Russell — One man. One mom. (Yes, that is Daniel Faraday of Lost!)
2. Zoo (2007), directed by Robinson Devor — One man. One horse. (Bonus points because it’s a documentary.)
1. Kissed (1996), directed by Lynne Stopkewitch — One woman. One corpse. (Click here to add this to your Netflix Instant Queue!)