The most shocking thing about attention-seeking satire “Burning Palms” isn’t its irreverent treatment of incest, shame, same-sex parenting and rape, but rather how little impact any of these elements have on the audience. Making his directorial debut, screenwriter Christopher Landon struggles so mightily to offend that he forgets to supply a rooting interest in his characters. And with no reason to care, there’s no reason to object when these “five tales of madness” trespass into subversive territory. Titillating subject matter and recognizable cast may drive eventual DVD curiosity, but won’t help this under-the-counter offering’s theatrical prospects.
Using a cheap, “Creepshow”-style comicbook device to connect its otherwise unrelated segments, “Burning Palms” reveals its low-budget roots right at the outset, opening with an attractive engaged couple (Dylan McDermott and Rosamund Pike) awaiting the arrival of 15-year-old Chloe (a clearly older Emily Meade) at the airport. Though the film toys with the idea that the jealous bride-to-be snaps when confronted with her fiance’s sexually precocious teen daughter, the amateur staging and rigged writing fail to convince.
The eventual twist comes not as a surprise but as a relief that we’ve made it through the film’s awkward first installment, a feeling that becomes increasingly familiar as each episode overstays its welcome and fails to deliver a satisfying conclusion. What this and each of the vignettes needs is greater subjectivity, which might compel audiences to identify with characters they would normally try to avoid in real life. Instead, Landon favors off-color Chuck Palahniuk-style caricature, using his outre ensemble to set up macabre, over-obvious punchlines about certain segments of society.
Representing L.A.’s west-side college crowd, there’s the insecure prude (Jamie Chung) who reluctantly agrees to stick her finger where the sun don’t shine during sex. Moving on to West Hollywood, the film spotlights a superficial gay couple (Peter Macdissi and Anson Mount) who adopt a wild African girl (Tiara McKinney) the way they might buy an exotic rug, hoping it might patch over bigger problems in their relationship. And in upscale Holmby Hills, Landon skewers the rich kids (Austin Williams, Jake Austin Walker and Addison Black) whose horseplay borders on the homicidal, striking fear in the hearts of their Hispanic housekeeper (Paz Vega) and absent-minded nanny (Lake Bell).
“Burning Palms” saves the story most clearly designed to offend for last, concocting an implausible scenario in which a lonely young rape victim (Zoe Saldana) tracks down her assailant (a grimy-looking Nick Stahl) and implores him to do it again. The actors struggle valiantly to flesh out these characters, yet, by this point, we’re so numb to the contrivances that it’s impossible to tell whether the film is trying to be provocative or funny or something else entirely.
In making his own L.A.-encompassing group portrait, “Crash” director Paul Haggis found a way to interweave his collection of stereotype-challenging Angelenos into a greater tapestry. Landon also wants to make a statement about the city’s denizens, toying with the hypocrisies of how they portray themselves in public vs. the sordid realities of their private lives, but their stories don’t complement one another or connect.
To be outrageous, “Burning Palms” would have to inspire outrage, but it lacks the competence to elicit much of a reaction. The laughs, when they come, result from sheer awkwardness, enhanced by the mismatch between the too-sunny footage (shot on Red in Baton Rouge and L.A.), the taboo-trolling subject matter and Matthew Margeson’s ineffectively ominous score.