That’s a close-enough summation of “Burning Palms”; even then, the sleeper surprise offers many scoops of the unexpected.
From the wonderfully devious mind of writer/director Christopher B. Landon (screenwriter of “Paranormal Activity 2” and “Disturbia,” and son of the late Michael Landon, who likely would be appalled) comes this anthology of five tales set in Los Angeles. With the exception of one minor character popping up in two segments, the stories otherwise play without obvious relation to one another.
In the first, Dedra (the ever-resplendent Rosamund Pike, “Barney’s Version”) finally meets the teenage daughter (Emily Meade, “My Soul to Take”) of her fiancé (Dylan McDermott, TV’s “Dark Blue”), and is appalled at their rather casual but close relationship, such as tanning together in the near-nude. Are they incestuous or is Dedra just reading too much into it?
The second story is the most outrageous, as Jamie Chung (“Sucker Punch”) reluctantly performs a sexual act at the request of her boyfriend (Robert Hoffman, “Take Me Home Tonight”) and then attempts to live with the consequences, which may literally drive her crazy.
Sandwiched in the middle is the antithesis of TV’s “Modern Family,” as a gay couple (Anson Mount, TV’s “Conviction,” and Peter Macdissi, “The Losers”) adopt a black girl (newcomer Tiara McKinney) under legally iffy circumstances, name her Mahogany, and then can’t understand why she won’t say a word. The truth is out there, and hilarious.
Kids doing the darndest things also figure heavily into the next bit, in which a trio of rich brats make life miserable for their Hispanic maid (Paz Vega, “The Spirit”), and their perpetually stoned nanny, aptly named Maryjane (Lake Bell, TV’s “Children’s Hospital”), couldn’t care less.
Coming in dead last is the most disturbing of the bunch, and the only one that doesn’t fit “Burning Palms”’ otherwise comedic mold. It examines what happens after a single woman (Zoe Saldana, “Avatar”) is sexually assaulted in her apartment, and finds that the rapist (Nick Stahl, “Mirrors 2”) left behind his wallet: not what you’d expect.
Obviously living on the edge and pushing pins into the bubble of political correctness, “Burning Palms” never plays it safe, so the easily offended should beware. For everyone else, especially lovers of jet-black comedy, this is a real gem — a near-excellent work of big ideas, bigger laughs and boisterous performances.
The only thing bad about it? The Blu-ray has only a trailer in addition to the feature. Still, the film’s repeat value bodes well for an eventual cult following and, with any luck, a second edition. —Rod Lott