Monday, March 17, 2014

Blogorium Review: Cheap Thrills

 While I doubt this is the case, I'd like to imagine that E.L. Katz's Cheap Thrills is a rebuttal to A Serbian Film, a "case in point" that you can make a movie exploring the limits of human depravity without alienating the audience or handing out a vomit bag to anybody foolhardy enough to show up. This is not to say that Cheap Thrills is for the weak of heart or the easily offended, but it's a damn sight more enjoyable to watch than its "extreme" contemporaries. Like its bretheren, the film is also interested in pushing a desperate man to see how far he'll go to provide for his family, but with some comedy mixed in. What is it they say about a spoonful of sugar?

 Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) is (or, was) a writer living in Los Angeles, and he's struggling to pay the bills while his wife Audrey (Amanda Fuller) takes care of their fifteen month old son. On the mother of all bad days, he finds an eviction notice on their apartment door, loses his job as an oil changer (?), and has no idea how he's going to come up with the $4,500 he needs by the end of the week. While at a bar, he runs into Vince (Ethan Emby), a friend from high school he hasn't seen in five years, and as they catch up, a couple approaches who want to party. Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) are looking to have a "night you'll never forget," and the way they're throwing around money catches Vince and Craig's attention. Colin begins offering prop bets ("$300 to get slapped by that woman at the bar") while Violet disinterestedly plays with her phone, but when Vince and Craig end up back at their place, the challenges take a more insidious tone...

 Cheap Thrills starts off innocently enough (or as innocently as Colin paying off the bartender to snort cocaine in public can) and doesn't take long to dive in to deep, dark territory. However, it's never without a sense of humor, albeit a twisted one. I've struggled with what genre Cheap Thrills would fall into, and the one that makes the most sense is "black comedy," although it gets a little more serious at times than that. It rides the line between a Very Bad Things and a Would You Rather in a way that is reminiscent of a less heightened Heathers - there's a pervasive darkness to the film that sometimes gives you pause to wonder if you should be laughing. The screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga pushes Craig into some really heavy territory. He really just wants to go home, but there's a history with Vince that includes some lingering resentments between the two that keeps him going, wanting to prove that he's willing to do anything for his family.

 The film is something of a reunion for Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, who were the main characters of Ti West's The Innkeepers, although they couldn't be more different in Cheap Thrills. Healy is a timid everyman, the audience surrogate whose presence we miss when he leaves the story (however briefly), and with whom we have to ask "could I do that if it meant taking home $250,000?". Paxton, on the other hand, is the femme fatale from hell, a bored housewife with more money than she knows what to do with and a husband willing to facilitate the ultimate birthday present, one that becomes clearer as the night goes on. It shouldn't be a spoiler to tell you that her disaffected behavior in the beginning is a facade, but what Violet is really after doesn't become clear until much later in the game.

 Koechner has a field day turning his affability on its ear: his normally boisterous, loudmouth persona takes a quick turn into more menacing directions once Colin has Vince and Craig in the confines of his home, and there's a scene late in the movie when he drops the "nice guy" act completely and becomes really frightening. Ethan Embry is the real surprise as Vince, particularly if you only remember him from Can't Hardly Wait or That Thing You Do. Vince has it bad in ways that Craig never could, making his money as a collection thug who often has to beat payments out of "clients," and his increasing frustration at Craig's willingness to hurt himself for money is the real driving force behind the narrative. The "bets" are really secondary, and range from anywhere in the "how long can you hold your breath" range to "take a shit in my neighbor's house" before things stop being polite and start getting real.

 I'm intentionally not telling you how crazy things get because not knowing what's going to happen or how far down the rabbit hole Vince and Craig are willing to follow Colin and Violet is part of the fun of watching Cheap Thrills. Like West's The House of the Devil, there is a sense early on that something bad is always about to happen, but the ways that Craig reacts to his desperation and the money for the taking provide their own sort of "cheap thrills" for the audience. Rather than simply shoving our faces in the ugly side of humanity for 87 minutes, Katz makes sure there's also comedy peppered throughout, mostly coming from the reactions of Vince or Craig to what the other is doing (there's a sequence of events late in the film involving a meat cleaver and an iron that shouldn't be as funny as it is, but a well disguised reveal makes the laughter more hearty). Healy has a great reaction shot when he takes the bet to punch a strip club bouncer (Jason X and Drive Angry writer Todd Farmer in a nice cameo) before he punches him, and the last shot is a doozy.

 Black comedies are notoriously tricky to get right, but Katz threads the needle very well with Cheap Thrills, and does it without ever making what happens seem outside of the realm of possibility. Other than one challenge I can't imagine Colin would really have time to make up on the fly, everything in the film matches the verisimilitude with which it's presented, which is all the more impressive. Cheap Thrills is a great movie to watch with friends who don't mind a little twisted in their cinema, and you won't have to clean vomit up off of the floor (maybe). I don't think you can say the same about A Serbian Film, so I think I know which one I'd pick.

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