Just when it looked like James Spader was going to spend his entire career playing yuppie slime balls, he turned around and got typecast as a yuppie saint. Max Baron, his character in White Palace, is a variation on the polite, bourgeois, erotically repressed nice guys he played in sex, lies, and videotape and Bad Influence. Max isn’t a control freak, exactly. He’s in mourning — his beautiful young wife, whom he loved since they were children, died nearly two years ago, and he has never gotten over it. Enter Nora (Susan Sarandon), a spunky working-class lush who comes on to Max in a bar, practically drags him home, and then, when he refuses to sleep with her, proceeds to seduce him anyway (if that’s the word) by waking him up with a round of surprise oral sex. At this point, Max knows he’s in love (or at least serious lust).
There’s just one problem: Outside of bed, he and Nora have nothing in common. Just how different are they? Well, he’s 27, she’s 43. He’s Jewish, she’s Catholic. He’s an intellectual who listens only to classical music, she’s a yahoo who loves the Oak Ridge Boys. Most important: He’s a successful advertising man, she’s a waitress at the ultrascuzzy White Palace hamburger joint. Can these two possibly have a genuine relationship?
The very fact that their personalities unfold in such tidy dichotomies tells you: Of course they can. Set in St. Louis, White Palace is a piece of 1970s-style whimsy — it’s Harold and Maude played almost straight — and Spader and Sarandon bring it a shaggy sense of fun. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor do sex scenes with quite the quivering spontaneity Spader brings to them. He’s like a teenage virgin; even when he finally pounces, he seems surprised by his own actions. And Sarandon shows some of the comic vibrancy she had in Bull Durham. Her Nora is full of high spirits and low funk, a deeply pragmatic woman whose no-nonsense demeanor extends to sensuality. She knows what she wants and takes it; Sarandon makes Nora’s very slatternliness seem radiant.
Overall, though, White Palace is a mixed bag. It’s yet another bogus movie about class differences — the sort of film that says we shouldn’t judge people by their cultural backgrounds, then keeps prodding us (like a sitcom) to laugh at their most superficial traits.
The movie is onto something when it shows us Max’s embarrassment at the prospect of having Nora meet his friends. Spader plays these scenes with an honesty that’s cringingly funny, and Sarandon goes right to the heart of Nora’s anger. Yet if the whole point is that Max is being selfish (and that the shame is mostly in his head), why do his friends have to be a collection of pretentious, judgmental geeks? The filmmakers stack the deck; they’re too eager to score points off these people. What’s more, they fall into the trap of using Nora’s working-class status as an automatic symbol of her ”integrity” (and of her free sexuality, too). Spader and Sarandon make White Palace worth seeing, but too often they’re fighting the movie’s smugness. B-