Wannabe black comedy 'Cheap Thrills' is a gaping void of creativity
Cheap Thrills Drafthouse Films
Director: E.L. Katz
Screenplay: Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton
Not rated / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Cheap Thrills is what happens when a delightfully perverse sense of humor collides with an astoundingly dull sense of imagination. Someone should tell this movie that, just because its thrills are cheap, that doesn't mean they're not allowed to be creative.
Because creative they are not. It seems to me that should be one of the main hooks for a movie about people humiliating themselves for cash - to actually make the humiliations interesting, and not just blandly plausible. But the script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo offers no such opportunity. The idea is simple: two old friends run into each other at a bar and slowly get roped into a little scheme in which they compete to pull off dares in exchange for money.
But the dares the film comes up with, even as things start to escalate, are safe and even predictable writing choices. These are first-draft ideas - ideas that should have evolved into something more unexpected, and something that followed through on the concept's twisted potential. I suppose, individually, each of the dares is fine; but piled on top of each other, they reveal a glaring lack of inventiveness. I'd love to see what a more fearlessly creative filmmaker could do with this premise.
This was the same problem I saw in last year's similarly themed Would You Rather, in which a wealthy impresario invites a group of desperate people to dinner and forces them to take part in a series of increasingly dangerous challenges, until only one survivor remains. It, too, started with a deliciously sadistic premise, but had mostly bland ideas for manipulating, embarrassing, torturing or killing its participants. Cheap Thrills is like a combination of that movie (with its inherent malevolence), and that Arrested Development subplot about GOB and the escalating series of dares (with its inherent innocence).
While the film doesn't do much with its dares, the way it utilizes them ends up creating an intriguing dynamic between the two leads. Pat Healy stars as Craig, a would-be writer currently supporting a wife and infant child on a mechanic's salary. Despite his hopes for a raise, he has in fact just discovered he's been laid off. He heads over to the bar for a drink, and happens to run into an old friend (they had a band back in high school), Vince (Ethan Embry, in a beard, hat, plaid shirt and extra muscle that suggests the filmmakers were hoping Tom Hardy was available). The two haven't seen each other in years - and given that Vince's job is collecting money for a loan shark (and all the violence that career path entails), it makes sense that their worlds don't cross paths very often.
On this particular evening, their collective path crosses that of a rich, freewheeling couple - the good ol' boy Colin (David Koechner) and his attractive but seemingly bored wife Violet (Sara Paxton) - who offer Craig and Vince the pleasure of their company and a few rounds of drinks. The night gets later and drunker, and soon Colin is offering wads of cash for the cheapest of tasks - go up to a woman at a bar and try to get slapped; punch the bouncer in the face; first one to finish a shot gets $200. That sort of thing. But soon, as the party moves from the bar to the couple's fancy home on the outskirts of town, the stakes get higher.
As things progress, their actions serve first to confirm, then to alter the two men's assumptions about one another. The film smartly distinguishes them and their motivations - Craig's desperation to be able to support his family vs. Vince's flat-out greed. And their behavior toward one another as circumstances change is one area where Cheap Thrills finds some real footing.
Given the kinds of things both are willing to do for money, it would be easy to classify the film as a social satire of some kind. A certain sub-brand of reality television (Fear Factor, etc.) is explicitly mentioned - and who knows, maybe there's an economic reference in there that I missed - but any commentary Cheap Thrills has to offer is, well, cheap at best, if not nonexistent. Director E.L. Katz - with his low lighting and muddy brown-and-yellow palette - does little else to distinguish it.
For a while it's a bit amusing to see the genuinely stupid things these two guys will do for a few hundred bucks, and we get the feeling that those trivialities are only setting us up for weirder, darker challenges going forward.
Darker? Yes. Weirder? I wish. This movie could use a little weirdness. Some of the dares are telegraphed a mile away - it becomes obvious that Craig is going to be dared to have sex with Violet, long before the movie finally gets around to it - and others seem like poor attempts to artificially up the ante. I found myself disheartened at a certain point, once I realized the movie simply didn't have the imagination to really take the film's comedic perversity to the next level. I'm no John Waters fan, but oh what I would have done for a little injection of his twisted audacity into this movie.
Yes, a few horrifying dares are asked of these two, but they're the kinds of things that seem inevitable and easy from the beginning, and thus disheartening when it turns out these are the best the filmmakers could come up with. These cheap thrills could be anything. Anything. And yet this is it? When you see such an obvious trajectory at the beginning of a film like this, you can't help but hope to have your expectations subverted. Cheap Thrills, however, goes only for the obvious.