Evincing enough hatred of mankind to make Todd Solondz look like a dedicated humanist, the five stories in Burning Palms, Christopher B. Landon’s L.A.-set anthology film, move between “edgy” black comedy, satire, and nauseous melodrama. But despite their different modes, what these “Five Tales of Madness!!!” (as designated by the film’s comic-book Creepshow-style framing device) all share is a commitment to inducing viewer discomfort, whether by reveling in the worst tendencies of human behavior, by piling up sophomoric gross-out gags or by trading in taboo subject matter. The film’s narrative quintet deals with, respectively, incest/suicide, the psychotic aftereffects of anal fingering, gay cross-racial adoption, infanticide/suicide, and rape, a headache-inducing catalogue of human transgression.
Mostly, the film is silly enough trash, that while neither delivering the subversive pleasures nor the holy-shit laughter it clearly tries so hard to induce, manages to remain watchable enough, give or take a woman’s recurring vision of her finger covered in feces (don’t ask!) or a match cut from a man vomiting in a shit-streaked toilet to a close-up of macaroni salad. But then comes the embarrassing third segment, an alleged satire of upper-crust gay life that equates queer existence with rampant materialism by having its central couple adopt an African child as a lifestyle accessory. Offensive to both gay people and Africans, the segment finds the seven-year-old’s parents at a loss as to what to do when their kid remains mute and resorts to the hunting habits of a tribal bushman. Eventually setting her free in the park to fend for herself (following a crystal meth incident), they find a more suitable lifestyle adornment in the form of a cute French poodle.
But while Landon’s caricatures of gay life seem particularly vicious, they’re not so far out of keeping with his general view of humanity. Whether he’s opening his film with a superfluous shot of a morbidly obese woman pushing a kid in a wheelchair, thus signaling his vision of mankind as a collection of comic grotesques, or closing the movie with a story about a rape victim who wants more of what she got (some women are just so fucked up!), Landon’s deeply cynical method is to conjure up the most aberrant corners of humanity and then wallow around in his self-created muck looking to scavenge what little scraps of humor he can find.