Stereotypes and fantasy abound in 'White Palace'

October 26, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'White Palace'

Starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader.

Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

... **

"White Palace" is almost the flip side of "Avalon.""Avalon" celebrated the richness of Jewish family culture, the nurturing, the sweetness, the support -- and mourned its passing. "White Palace" looks at all that and says, goodbye. It finds happiness ever after in flight from the values of childhood and the snares of family.

Conceived as a riff on the theme of erotic awakening, it concerns 27-year-old Max Baron, a St. Louis advertising man still in mourning over the death of his wife of two years ago (and still celibate), and Nora Brown, 43, a waitress in a burger joint. If ever two people were more unlike, it hasn't been recorded in a movie.

Max is stuffy, snobbish, irritable, smug, distant and somewhat creepy, though many of the young women of his "set" -- that is, yuppied Jewish St. Louis -- seem to consider him quite the catch. Nora, on the other hand, is slatternly, trashy, tattooed and has the come-hither look that Patricia Neal used to specialize in.

It doesn't help a bit that neither performer is quite right for their roles. James Spader plays Max pretty much as he played in "sex, lies and videotape": a vague, cool, aloof young man with a curious diffidence to him so that he has great difficulty delivering his lines with any clarity or force. It's of no help at all that he seems as alien to his nominally native culture as he does to Nora's redneck world; he's not from the other side of the tracks, he's from the other side of the universe.

Then there's Susan Sarandon as Nora. It takes a great deal of effort to turn this beautiful woman into a slovenly earth mother, and it doesn't work. Sarandon doesn't quite give in the way that a Meryl Streep would; you feel her holding back. But the character is somewhat offensively imagined, too: It plays with a long-held, grotesque prejudice that lower-class women are somehow "hotter" than those of the middle class, and that they let go in a way their wealthier counterparts, too consumed with hair, clothes and career, are able to.

After an initial encounter in her burger joint, the "White Palace" of the title, the two meet in a C-W bar, where he's gone to drown his self-loathing in gin, a highly unlikely way for him to deal with problems. Because he's handsome and hard, and she's lonely, she sweeps him up and takes him to her place for a night of bliss. He says he'll never see her again; he's back by the next evening.

As a couple, these two talk about nothing; they go nowhere; they have no common interests; they just spend a lot of time in bed. Yet from this, or so the movie insists, love develops, a love that crosses class boundaries and impels them to enter their lives around the other. Finally, she insists on being "included."

This leads to an ordeal known as "Thanksgiving at the Horowitzes" -- a friend's family gathering.

I turned to my wife and said, "I was hoping to avoid Thanksgiving at the Horowitzes."

But no. The movie lurches into "Thanksgiving at the Horowitzes," which is every bit as horrid as it threatens. Nora gets drunk; Max, taking care of his mother, ignores her; the other women at the Horowitzes look at Nora as if she's something that came in on Max's shoe; Mr. Horowitz, a blowhard liberal, starts lecturing Nora on the working class, and Nora blows a gasket, tell him to bleep off, and leaves in a huff.

Whether the movie means to be anti-semitic or not, it certainly manages to portray Jewish family life as a sucking bog of hypocrites and materialists. It's no wonder that Max would want to flee these cretins to be with his princess. It seems to me that in dramatic terms, the film just doesn't work; if we can't see the strengths of family and peer culture, then Max isn't giving anything up for Nora, and his love is meaningless.

Nora, meanwhile, is country-proud; she takes off not merely from the Horowitzes but from St. Louis; from Missouri, leaving Max to realize how much he loved her and how much he hates his own heritage.

Thus it views his final act -- to flee family and culture -- as an act of heroism, not betrayal. All of this might have some dramatic import if the movie were for just a moment believable. But everybody in it is a cliche -- "sensitive" Jewish male, "earthy" working class female, clamoring, gabbing, greedy Jewish relatives -- you don't believe a word of it. Anyway.

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