Paz Vega plays a maid in "Burning Palms." (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle, New…)
"Burning Palms," Christopher B. Landon's ambitious and effective debut feature, reveals in five vignettes the fragility and desperation that lurk beneath the surface of the lives of some anonymous L.A. residents. Landon's sardonic view of human nature and deft filmmaking skills — plus a raft of sharp portrayals — keep the viewer from pondering the preposterousness of certain situations and instead encourages going along with the fun.
Shot on a modest budget, "Burning Palms" is a plus for Landon, who co-wrote Larry Clark's memorably scabrous "Another Day in Paradise," featuring Melanie Griffith and James Woods.
The two strongest stories are also the most outrageous. In the dark but funny "This Little Piggy," Chad (Robert Hoffman) persuades his girlfriend (Jamie Chung) to include in their sex play an act she doesn't immediately realize she will find so repulsive that it could drive her out of her mind. In "Maneater," a rapist (Nick Stahl) brings Zoe Saldana's Sarah face to face with her extreme longing for love.
The ending of "The Green-Eyed Monster" seems overly drastic, but the vignette allows Rosamund Pike to deliver a terrific performance as a lovely woman meeting the twisted 14-year-old daughter (Emily Meade) of her fiancé ( Dylan McDermott) for the first time.
To be spoken in the same breath with the above-mentioned actresses is Paz Vega as a maid in a Holmby Hills mansion in which a boy (Austin Williams), hugely neglected along with his brothers by his absentee parents, targets her for destruction. This sequence, "Kangaroo Court," risks defying credibility more than the others but plays well anyway, with nifty support from Lake Bell as the brothers' stoned nanny, "Babel's" Adriana Barraza as their put-upon housekeeper and Shannen Doherty as Williams' character's therapist (who also appears in another sequence).
"Buyer's Remorse" satirizes a stereotypical affluent West Hollywood gay couple (Peter Macdissi and Anson Mount) who adopt a determinedly mute 7-year-old African girl (wonderful Tiara McKinney) without giving a thought to the challenges of parenthood. On the whole, the women get the showy parts in "Burning Palms," but the men give strong support.