How far are you willing to go to make a buck? That’s the area explored in the new pitch black comedy, Cheap Thrills. Initially, the film is a send-up of truth or dare; except truth is absent, and if the dare is completed, the participant is paid in full. But as Cheap Thrills evolves, it becomes an unexpected morality tale of the societal demands of class structure. It’s about fun and games being just that, until money decides it’s not.
Enter Colin (David Koechner, a superb character actor perfectly tapping into his dimwitted persona), who invites Craig and Vince to sit with him and his much younger, humorously disengaged wife, Violet (Sara Paxton). Seconds after getting acquainted, Colin starts pitching bets to Craig and Vince. Whoever takes that shot gets $50, whoever slaps that stripper’s ass gets $500 – silly things of the sort. Colin clearly has (a lot of) money and is eager to watch Craig and Vince battle for it.
Once the gang relocates to Colin’s fancy pad in East Hollywood, the stakes are raised. As the amount per bet increases, so does the potential danger. I’m not going to reveal what Colin forces Craig and Vince to do, because those misdeeds are the heart of the film. And I use the word “force” deliberately. Colin, you see, never technically forces Craig and Vince to do anything. There are no guns held to heads demanding that this be done, now. Instead, money is the sole motivating factor. And as the thrills in Cheap Thrills grow more depraved, the film subtly morphs from a dog-hunt-rabbit comedy of greed to something much more profound.
In the world of Cheap Thrills, money is the root of all evil, and How much is the devil that lives inside the participants. Craig has a family to support, Vince has a loser lifestyle to maintain. Is one set of problems more significant than the other? Not to Craig and Vince. And it’s that notion of shared desperation that Colin preys upon. In the film’s final act, we realize that director E.L. Katz, and writers, Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo are far more intelligent than we may have initially given them credit for. They know exactly how far to push Cheap Thrills, keeping it just on the side of black comedy, careful never to venture into farce.
The universally excellent cast is much to thank for this as well. Pat Healy’s had my attention since playing an evil crank caller in Compliance, and Ethan Embry so remarkably transforms himself into Vince, that I literally didn’t know it was him until 20 minutes into the movie. Both give dependable performances that sell the movie dutifully. But the real show stopper is David Koechner, who delivers a crazed, excitable, career-best performance as Colin. The movie wouldn’t work if Koechner was unable to convince us of Colin’s authenticity. We believe that Colin, no matter how outlandish he may appear, is a guy who really, truly, gets off on what he’s doing. It was a blast to watch Koechner tiptoe between classic villain and coked-up thrill seeker. From one minute to the next, I honestly didn’t know where Colin was going to go.
So here’s the thing, Cheap Thrills isn’t my type of movie. On paper, it seems ordinary, moronic and, well, cheap. I caught it OnDemand (it’s also on iTunes) last week after it was recommended to me by a few people whose tastes I trust. Good for me I listened, because watching this film was some of the most fun I’ve had in while. But it was also some of the most thought provoking. Much of the intrigue of Cheap Thrills is asking yourself if you’d do what Craig and Vince do. “No,” you might say, of course you wouldn’t do that. For that amount of money, at least. Or would you? See, you’re thinking about it. B+