Burning Palms (2010)
112 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
Satire is an extremely hard line to walk. Writer-director Christopher Landon certainly pushes buttons and hits taboos in his blackly comic anthology satire "Burning Palms." It's a hire-wire act to be sure; absurd, dark, cruelly funny, disturbing, subversive, and never boring. At the same time, it's extremely uneven and unsure about what we're supposed to take away from it all. Structured in a comic-book framing device inspired by 1982's "Creepshow," the California-set "Burning Palms" is made up of "five tales that will mess you up for life."
The first segment, "The Green-Eyed Monster," concerns the jealousy and paranoia of Dedra (Rosamund Pike) toward the arrival of her finacee's (Dylan McDermott) 15-year-old daughter (Emily Meade, doing her best Mila Kunis impression), who has a scarily close relationship with Dad. They tan topless outside, they grind against one another at a dance club, and they don't talk appropriately like a normal father and daughter. Built up like a "From Hell" thriller, the story leads to a predictably unpleasant conclusion. Next up is "This Little Piggy," set in Westwood, tracking prudish, self-conscious college girl Ginny (Jamie Chung), who can't seem to wash away the stink off her finger after her boyfriend asks for an unsanitary sexual request and she unravels. This tale is go-for-broke comic insanity and walks away with all the glory.
"Buyer's Remorse" satirizes a shallow, stereotypical West Hollywood gay couple (Peter Macdissi, Anson Mount) who purchase, er, adopt a mute 7-year-old black girl and nothing goes right. Even if its characters are played as exaggerated caricatures, this cynical vignette gets the most laughs until the lame punchline. And Colleen Camp is completely wasted, while Shannen Doherty inscrutably talks with a British accent for no rhyme or reason. "Kangaroo Court" is the strangest of all, set in a big mansion of three rich, rambunctious kids, "supervised" by a stoned hippie (Lake Bell). In one of the kids' homicidal horseplay games, they trigger the heartbreaking past of their Hispanic housekeeper (Paz Vega). Bell does hilarious work here, but the story leads to an obvious conclusion, go figure. The last one, "Maneater," is something else entirely: it doesn't play out as predictably as the others and it's the most serious, maybe even most offensive. In her Sherman Oaks apartment, Sarah (Zoe Saldana) is raped by a man in a mask (Nick Stahl). Afterwards, she finds his wallet, tracks him down, and begs her assailant to do it again.
Reminding of 2002's "The Rules of Attraction," this picture, too, plows head-on into some pretty shocking subject matter to get its perverse, voyeuristic thrills without getting any of the characters on our side. Landon pulls game, gutsy performances out of his familiar-faced cast and keeps his mean streak consistent in a sickly entertaining way, even if the tone is all over the California map.