Mark Reviews Movies

Cheap Thrills


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: E.L. Katz

Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, Amanda Fuller

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 3/21/14 (limited); 4/11/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 10, 2014

Cheap Thrills is over a decade late in one of its primary satirical aims. We've known for a while that ordinary people will do all sorts of crazy and disgusting acts in the name of entertainment for the possibility of winning a small fortune, and even the landscape of "reality" television has changed from stunt and geek shows featuring regular folks to talent competitions featuring everyday individuals or celebrities whose stars have faded. Worse, it's enabled certain people with no obvious talents or cultural worth to become famous simply because they have money or they're friends with other rich people with no discernible skills or social worth.

The good thing is that screenwriters Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo don't limit themselves to this conceit. In fact, we might not even think about it if a character didn't directly reference that useless genre of television "entertainment." There's a lot more happening here in terms of knocking down class, economic instability, and, of course, human nature. It's a dark film about the worst of all of these things, and the screenplay doesn't hold back from reducing its targets of satire to the most brutal, bloodiest, and ickiest levels of absurdity.

The film is funny if one is willing to find the humor in a scenario involving a hatchet and a pinky finger, and it's quite funny if one notes the juxtaposition of the degree of disgust the participants show at the prospect of eating a certain dish almost immediately after going through the ordeal with the finger. Somehow, through it all, director E.L. Katz keeps these characters grounded, even as the stakes increase in grotesquery.

Craig (Pat Healy) is a struggling (read: failed) writer who is attempting to support his wife (Amanda Fuller) and 15-month-old baby with a job at an auto garage. It's not enough apparently, as there's an eviction notice on the apartment door as he heads off to work this particular morning. If he doesn't pay $4,500 in a week, his family will be without a home. Making matters worse, his employer has decided to downsize, and he's on the block.

Later, he sits at the bar thinking (read: drinking) alone until Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend he hasn't seen in years, sits down next to him. Vince is willing to help but doesn't have the money, and he can't help with employment in his field of work.  Neither thinks Craig has the stomach for the probability of violence that comes with collecting debts (So much of what happens later on proves them both wrong on this count).

Also at the bar are Colin (David Koechner) and his new wife Violet (Sara Paxton, a fine femme fatale), who's there to celebrate her birthday. They're having fun—although she's bored and distracted by her phone—making little bets. Colin wants Craig and Vince to get in on their games.

It all starts so innocently, too: 50 bucks to the first of them to do a shot of expensive tequila and a $100 bill as the reward for hitting a certain spot on the dartboard. At least that's easier than the way Craig got his first money in this game by fishing it out of the toilet in the men's room—apparently a test to see if he was strapped for cash enough to do so.

Then it gets a little more dangerous. Whichever of them gets a woman at the bar to slap him across the face wins a few hundred dollars. Colin tells Craig to throw the first punch against a pushy bouncer who has come to investigate the person he believes slapped a stripper on the rear end (It was Vince—also to obtain a few hundred bucks). Craig wakes up in one of Colin and Violet's houses outside Los Angeles, and with the discovery of a safe with a quarter of a million dollars in it, things get even weirder.

It's all leveled by desperation. Both of these men are stuck with no perceivable route out of their respective ruts. Katz could easily have focused on the stunts and humiliation as a means to an end, but instead, he lets them serve as a way to observe the deterioration of each man's limits of decency and dignity.

Healy portrays the milquetoast innocence of Craig, who wants to get out of this game as soon as possible, without making him a wet blanket, and his transformation into a man who has convinced himself that he would do anything in the name of his family is even more effective. Embry plays Vince as the kind of guy who only knows how to show affection through jabs of both the verbal and physical variety; his fuel to bring out the mercilessly competitive side is cocaine, of which Colin provides plenty. Koechner avoids bluster, and there's something inherently amusing about watching the conductor of this madness become the only one to display moral outrage and regret about the situation.

There are plenty of difficult-to-stomach moments in Cheap Thrills, but they're offset by the conviction of the actors and the wicked sense of humor Katz brings to the proceedings. This is not a pleasant view of human nature, but if there's one thing we've learned from the onslaught of "reality" television, it's that just about anyone is for sale in the right context. The rest, as the old adage goes, is just negotiating the price.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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