I’m back, bitches… Video coming up soon, but thank you so much for your patience while I heal. Let’s get this show on the road…
If you come to the movie Cheap Thrills expecting cheap thrills, you will be satisfied. If you watch Cheap Thrills looking for some very profound look into the psychological and physical torment of beings for the sake of exploitation and enjoyment, you will be very disappointed. Extremely so. It is a more nuanced and narrative-driven Jackass skit more than anything else, its content displayed with the only effect of testing the endurance of the viewer in its implications rather than actually displaying acts of violence or extreme content legitimately like other squemish films would do. I neither mean this to be damning or a source of praise for Cheap Thrills, I mean to state this as a definition of what the movie actually is.
Because what actually damns it is how it thinks it is more than that. It wants so very much to be that satire and makes very unsubtle implications about the pursuit of wealth by any means necessary from the very beginning (“You gotta play by the rules, guys” is one of the first things David Koechner says simply about taking alcohol shots) or act like it’s indicting about how the rich upper class will look down on the struggling working class or how they act above everything and, not to pretend that’s not the case, but man, does itself juvenile attitude about its violence and gross-out material really nullify the idea that you could take any actual message or moral that the film dishes out seriously. If you are looking for that kind of movie, you will shut Cheap Thrills off almost immediately after it starts. If you aren’t, you will be simply watching a bunch of tricks and stunts to make you flinch and then maybe you’ll feel like you’ve learned something. It doesn’t matter how many times it repeats its insistence on money, it doesn’t matter how the movie’s ending is soooooooooo reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s finale for Funny Games (and a moment in the movie even has the goddamned desperation to say “Let’s hit pause for a moment. Let’s press rewind”). It’s really no deeper than surface.
I say this because it was important to me to address Cheap Thrills as it was from the very beginning of this. To go further now at that goal would just to be tell the premise and why not: Craig (Pat Healy) has had a terrible day. He’s been fired from a job that was barely making ends meet to begin with and finds his family on the verge of eviction. So, on the way out of his terrible day is a miserable life and he drinks off his sorrows to come, before running into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old and distant friend from high school. Together, they are roped into the company of Colin (Koechner), a loudmouthed possible kajillionaire who is trying to celebrate the birthday of his very young and attractive wife Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin’s idea of a celebration is by getting these two losers to go and do stupid little dares like punching a bouncer and getting slapped in the face by a stranger for simple little bits of cash like $50 and $100. But as the night continues and the party moves over to Colin and Violet’s suburban house (which is way too modest for a couple as outrageous as these two people that really showcases how independent the film is), these stunts escalate to more and more inhumane tasks and acts of cruelty between each other as Craig and Vince both act out of desperation for the cash, sometimes not entirely playing by the rules.
And you know, that’s all the film ever needed to be and I’m completely fine with that. It’s a remarkably fine and funny script, with the lead actors of Healy and Embry at least bringing out more and more resentment between each other to give the narrative a hell of a lot more heft and weight than it probably could have earned and Koechner is absolutely no slouch as a comedic timing (the whole movie is more of a comedy than a drama – when the deeds are actually done, no matter how severe, they are escalated to cartoonish levels. No way you can have any reaction beyond “Oh god, I wanna turn away” and “Oooooooh hahaha!”, if you have any reaction at all to the movie).
I mean, there’s not much of a problem I have with the movie where it is a simple story. We get so much motivation told out of so little from our two Hellfire Gladiators, without devoting itself to exposition or even the easy give-away of the conflict thrust at hand, but by active emotional representation. It is as cheap as the rest of the film but it doesn’t feel cheap when Embry and Healy pull it off. And best of all, it means that the finale of the film, something that people would usually see under any other circumstances as an immediate copout, is earned. It’s actually pretty satisfying when most of the movie doesn’t make me want to throw-up, ’cause this cast is excellent – even the emotionless voyeur in Sara Paxton’s performance. It’s a well-constructed film.
E.L. Katz in the end has turned in a terrific little debut film after having spent a career writing screenplays (interestingly, he opted not to write this film, though I really doubt he had not taken some liberties from the shooting draft. Writers-turned-directors ideally have that impulse). It’s not much more than itself on the skin, though – a midnight movie to featuring two guys who hate each other more and more over the night with a bit of energy given to its dark laughs and a bit of energy to making the viewer go “Oh, what the fuck, man.” Could it be bigger, I don’t think so. Clearly Katz and company tried and failed, but their failure is not a total loss since you get entertained in the end by its numbing presentation. I can definitely see this movie as the SXSW type, so it doesn’t surprise me that it premiered there.
I mean, what’s wrong with some cheap thrills?