You could read “Cheap Thrills” as a commentary on the current American socio-economic condition, with the working poor increasingly willing to humiliate themselves in exchange for whatever breadcrumbs are tossed to them by the plutocrats who control everything. That reading isn’t much fun, though, and if there’s one thing “Cheap Thrills” stands for, it’s fun — sick, demented fun, the kind that hurts the next day.
Our underdog hero in this testosterone- and drug-fueled dark comedy is Craig (Pat Healy), a button-down would-be writer who’s been barely supporting his wife (Amanda Fuller) and baby son doing work he’s not suited for, only to be laid off from that job due to cutbacks. Drowning his sorrows at a dive bar that night, he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old buddy from his wilder days who works as a leg-breaker for a loan shark. The drinks, the company, and the financial desperation loosen Craig up enough to be receptive to what happens next.
He and Vince are befriended by a couple in the bar: Colin (David Koechner), a loud, flashy rich guy who throws his money around, and his wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), who’s younger and more enigmatic. For his and Violet’s entertainment, Colin starts offering Craig and Vince cash for completing dares — $50 to whoever drinks this tequila shot first, $200 to whoever can get the hooker at the bar to slap him, that sort of thing. No harm in it so far, except to the men’s dignity. And hey, two hundred bucks is two hundred bucks.
Eventually the four are back at Colin and Violet’s lavish house in the Hollywood hills, where the booze and cocaine flow freely and the wagers get bigger and riskier. Colin’s games pit Vince and Craig against one another, reopening old wounds and widening the gap between Craig, who has grown up and become responsible, and Vince, who’s still greedily looking for the easy way out.
And they’re both here with this Colin jerk, this rich bastard who wastes money on nonsense, who clearly doesn’t deserve to be so wealthy and carefree. Craig is practically killing himself to provide for his family, and here’s Colin, sitting in his mansion almost literally setting money on fire. If these guys will demean themselves for money, that says something about them. But paying someone to demean himself says something about Colin, too. (David Koechner, an old pro at playing tacky loudmouths, is brutally funny in the role.)
I won’t spoil the dares for you, only warn you that they’re all some combination of hilarious, felonious, painful, and disgusting. Directed by first-timer E.L. Katz from a screenplay by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, the tone grows darker but remains funny, laughter mingling with gasps at the lengths men will go to when money and pride are at stake. Each of Colin’s new propositions feels like a question for the audience as well, turning the film into its own parlor game: Would I take that dare? And what’s the lowest amount of money that I’d do it for?
Ethan Embry’s nice dude with rough edges and Sara Paxton’s secretly twisted accomplice are vital, but Pat Healy’s mealy-mouthed wimp-hero is the film’s main asset. Healy revels in Craig’s suffering, making us laugh (at him and with him) as we root for him not just to get the money he needs but to win the games. We respect how far this awkward, goony man is willing to go, whether we’d do the same or not.
Though there’s absolutely no agenda in the film, I think it’s fair to say it wouldn’t be as resonant if it came out during a time of economic prosperity, when fewer people have daydreams about being able to pay their bills. But it also speaks to the competitive, reckless streak found in many men (it’s hard to picture women doing these dumb stunts, isn’t it?), and it’s a total blast to watch.
B+ (1 hr., 25 min.; )