Christopher Landon must be a very unhappy person. No one with a spring in their step or a twinkle in their eye or whatever you associate with a good mood could have written and directed Burning Palms, a movie so ugly, so venomous, so painfully unclear about what audience it’s geared towards and what point it’s trying to make. It can’t possibly be a satire, since it neither makes us laugh nor makes us think. Structured as vignettes in a comic book, the film tells five dark, miserable stories about dark, miserable people doing dark, miserable things; by the end of each segment, we will have learned absolutely nothing about the characters’ strange behaviors, apart from the fact that they’re exhibiting them.
All five stories are set in Los Angeles. This doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is that Landon’s intention was to exploit Angelino stereotypes. This is in bad taste, but more to the point, Landon doesn’t follow his own set of rules; the film depicts not a single character or set of circumstances that couldn’t be found in any other major metropolitan area. So what has he really accomplished? Telling stories of gratuitous pain, suffering, and cruelty, that’s what.
Segment no. 1: “The Green-Eyed Monster.” Fifteen-year-old Chloe Marx (Emily Meade), who has been attending school on the East coast, is visiting her father, Dennis (Dylan McDermott), and his new girlfriend, Dedra (Rosamund Pike), who live in Santa Monica. Father and daughter have an inappropriately close relationship. The new girlfriend notices them and instantaneously becomes consumed with jealousy. Apart from the unlikable characters, this segment ends on a note so predictable and unsatisfying that it’s an anticlimax.
Segment no. 2: “This Little Piggy.” A UCLA student named Chad Bower (Robert Hoffman) asks his girlfriend, Ginny (Jamie Chung), to try … a sexual maneuver on him. She obliges. As the days go by, her sanity slips away little by little, all because of a lingering odor on her finger, one she cannot wash off no matter how hard she scrubs. Is it inherently funny that a scenario this ridiculous is scripted and shot as if it were a psychological thriller? I have my doubts.
Segment no. 3: “Buyer’s Remorse.” A gay couple from West Hollywood, Tom (Anson Mount) and Geri (Peter Macdissi), realize they made a huge mistake adopting an African girl they name Mahogany (Tiara McKinney), who never says a word and does nothing but stare at people blankly and harpoon possums like a Zulu warrior. Forget the tiresome joke about the pairing of their names, which was incidentally far more successful in “Another Year”; this segment is appallingly offensive, not only because it perpetuates exhausted gay and African stereotypes, but also because every character is loathsome. You create satire by making the audience think, not by actively trying to alienate them.
Segment no. 4: “Kangaroo Court.” Nicholas (Austin Williams) is a boy who lives in a mansion in Holmby Hills. His parents are never home; he’s looked after by a bitter pseudo-hippie of a babysitter (Lake Bell), who spends every waking moment taking drags off of joints. He’s an aggressive kid who likes unsafe war games and has an affinity for reality court shows. Soon enough, he appoints himself as judge in a junior trial on behalf of his housekeeper, Blanca (Paz Vega), who has lost the umbilical cord of her dead baby and thinks it was stolen. If you think what I’ve just described is pointless and subtracting, just wait until you see how this segment ends.
Segment no. 5: “Man Eater.” Believe it or not, I actually was hopeful about this one, because it opens on an engaging premise. We open with Sarah Cotton (Zoe Saldana) being raped in her Sherman Oaks apartment by a masked assailant. When she discovers his wallet under her sofa, she decides to pay him a visit. Here enters Robert Kane (Nick Stahl), a lowly pizzeria employee. Her initial behavior towards him is atypical and suggests a new and fascinating form of revenge. Alas, the final scene reduces the segment to little more than emotional depravity. So again, we have a story that reveals nothing except shiftless misery.
In what way is this movie supposed to be entertaining? Because it exaggerates situations to the point of absurdity? What’s the use if the purpose of every segment is to make us feel worthless? Burning Palms is melodrama without purpose. It’s a meaningless and emotionally bankrupt exercise in unnecessary and unendurable suffering. It’s been quite some time since I’ve left a theater feeling so depressed and unclean. I’m forced to wonder: What was going on in Christopher Landon’s life when he wrote this movie? Is he still going through it now? Chris, buddy, I know the world can be a cruel and scary place, but don’t make audiences share in your misery. Just keep telling yourself that it will be OK. The more you say it, the more you may come to believe it.
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