It is a gangster movie set in the clean streets of Toronto the Good. The year is 1959, when the bars closed even earlier than they do now. The hero is a homely clerk who falls for a gunman’s moll. She is the sex symbol Toronto never dared to have, a sultry blonde reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. Palais Royale— named after the vintage dance hall on the city’s lakefront where the action begins and ends— offers a local twist on a classic formula: a nice guy loses his innocence to a bad girl, who is really a nice girl in the clutches of a bad crowd. The film makes fun of Toronto, meeting place of petty ambitions, but Hogtown has never looked so good: the screen is bathed in the soft colors of nostalgia. What Palais Royale lacks, however, is a good script.
Attempting to serve as a romance, a comedy, an adventure and a cultural fable, the story fails to satisfy on all counts. Gerald (Matt Craven) works as a drudge in an advertising agency and daydreams about the Royal Cigarette Girl who looms from a billboard outside his window. By chance, he meets her at a streetcar stop. He then finds her at a mafia dance at the Palais, where he witnesses a murder and saves her life. When not modelling for billboards, Odessa (Kim Cattrall) is the bored girlfriend of a trigger-happy punk named Tony (Kim Coates). Seduced by Odessa, Gerald is soon moonlighting as Tony’s “straight John,” driving him around on various criminal errands. And a showdown brews as the gang leader, Dattalico (Dean Stockwell), rejects Tony’s violent ways and points to Gerald’s respectability as the wave of the future in Toronto the Good. “Isn’t that what they call it?” says Dattalico. “Why? Because it’s a good place to operate unmolested.”
Stockwell creates a Canadian-content version of the amusing crime boss he played in Married to the Mob. Craven is convincing as a square who pops Pez candy and has a secret passion for jazz. And Cattrall’s Odessa is sexy, a slinky vision of pink lingerie and creamy skin. But the narrative is as phoney as a mafia front. Despite the smart, stylish look created by director Martin Lavut, Palais Royale is just another pretty place.
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