FROM THE MOMENT James Spader meets waitress Susan Sarandon in a burger joint, "White Palace" makes short order out of what could have been a heartier meal. Made up of tiny, non-nutritious patties, this movie is a buffet of Hollywood nothingness.
And in movie theaters, they don't even give you ketchup.
Taking on a potentially meaty subject (OK, last carnal reference) -- about the love between young widower Spader and older woman Sarandon -- the movie trivializes everything into a feature-length frolic between bed-romping Susan of "Bull Durham" and pouty, cherubic James of "sex, lies, and videotape." It's propelled along by ceaseless, mood-marshaling soft-rock music and manages to skirt every issue -- intergenerational relationships, coping with loss, even falling in love -- that it pretends to be about.
Why, exactly, are these people in love? Spader, reverting to his usual Yuppie-Jr. role, is a narcissistic mope who has been self-piteously celibate for the two years since his wife's death. In "sex, lies," he played a corrupt version of himself to useful effect; a certain, aberrant tenderness emerged. But here there's nothing to discover underneath the grief.
Sarandon puts all her considerable talents into a rather trite pursuit: She's a school-of-hard-knocks, life-affirming, screw-the-vacuuming, working-class sex goddess who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and cackles when Spader drives into her mailbox. Ironically enough, she's so well-cast she becomes self-parodying. With mattress movies "Bull Durham" and now this under her suspender belt, she's rapidly becoming the very model of a modern Mrs. Robinson.
So, after Spader, the ad exec on the rise, and Sarandon, the St. Louis tart with a heart, get it together, what lies in the way of their ultimate movie happiness? In "White Palace" (mis-adapted from Glenn Savan's more ominous-themed book) it's a matter of cocktail-party courage. Spader has to get the guts to introduce her to his world or, more specifically, to his family friends, the Horowitzes.
Never mind the real, uncomfortable questions -- the fact, for instance, that in 10 years, the chain-smoking Sarandon will be an unhealthy 53 and clean-living Spader will be a sprightly 37. Or that in 20 years, she'll be 63 and he'll be 47. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it's not even brought up.
There are moments when the movie threatens to get better than frivolous. Spader realizes one afternoon that, essentially, they have little to talk about, but this ugly truth is swept under the rug almost immediately. When Spader finally takes his older girlfriend to the Horowitzes, it makes for some seriocomic moments: Sarandon is challenged in the bathroom by a house designer and fights back. She also stands up in the middle of the Thanksgiving meal to dress down the telescopically liberal Mr. Horowitz.
Spader briefly shows evidence of a blood-cell count when Sarandon's daffy, psychic sister (Eileen Brennan) reads his palm and sees Spader's dead wife. He pulls his hand away, the surge of something real and fearful in his eyes. But the glint subsides almost instantly, he returns to his zombie status and our spiritless love ride continues its pointless journey.
WHITE PALACE (R) -- Area theaters.