White Palace (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Max (James Spader) ordered fifty White Palace burgers for his friend’s bachelor party, but when the guys opened some of the boxes, it turned out that six of them were empty. Max, being a man of principle, ignored his friends when they said it was no big deal and actually drove back to the burger joint to either get a refund or claim the missing burgers. Nora (Susan Sarandon) happened to be manning the cashier and she was not at all the type to be pushed around. After the night was over, out of pure coincidence, Max and Nora ended up drinking in the same bar. The power of “White Palace,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and Alvin Sargent, can be found in the way the filmmakers focused on two damaged souls and why they were potentially each other’s healing agents. Their devotion toward each other was so intense at times, it bordered on obsession. I liked not knowing whether I should be happy for them or be concerned that something was about to go very wrong. Every time the characters spoke about himself or herself and to each other, there was a piece of information given to make us consider reasons why Max looked so sad and Nora felt the need to put on an air of false confidence to remind herself that she was good enough. Since Nora and Max were initially strangers to one another, hearing them speak so vividly and openly about their personal lives was like going on a journey with them through their beautiful but tragic memories. Spader and Sarandon, although the two exercised different approaches to communicate what grief meant to their respective characters, were equally consummate performers in that each time the lens of the camera focused on their faces, the act of recollecting the past and discussing those they loved was like opening a gash that desperately wanted to heal. I felt their pain, rage, and disappointment toward an imagined life that would never be. I was most impressed in the way the material dealt with passion. Its rawest form was Max and Nora having sex and working to reach an orgasm. I found it titillating–sexy but not pornographic–mainly because the camera didn’t linger on the body of one gender. Most often, the two bodies shared a frame as to highlight their need for connection in a physical as well as in an emotional way. I enjoyed and admired that Luis Mandoki, the director, allowed the sex scene to play out without resulting to sleaze. The direction was so assured, there was even a nice comedic touch about a sandwich found on the floor. Equally commendable was the scene in the bar where Nora tried to seduce Max. It showcased Sarandon’s acting as Nora slinked from her initial lonely spot until she was able to place her hand on Max’ thigh. I just loved the idea of an older woman and the possibility of her taking advantage of a younger man. I was so intrigued by that sense of danger, I caught myself hoping the characters would put deposit more drinks down their throats just to see how far they would get with one another if all the red lights they lived their lives by suddenly turned green. But “White Palace,” based on a novel by Glenn Savan, was more than painful pasts, sex, and seduction. Although slightly less surprising, it was also about class differences experienced through Nora not having a college education and “just” being a waitress. With all the eyes that judge, it was no wonder that not only was she a fighter, she was a survivor.