In the aptly-named shock-comedy Cheap Thrills, we meet the mild-mannered Craig (Pat Healy), a wallflower with a diminished bank account. In the film’s opening scene, he brandishes a $20 bill, but the money’s exit from his wallet might as well be accompanied by a cartoon moth, for it’s the type of wallet that never truly carries many twenties.
He heads to work in the morning, but not before catching the eviction notice on his door. By the time it’s confirmed that Craig actually works two jobs, in an auto shop and as a writer, we understand this is a Recession-era film. Working hard won’t bring you salvation in this America.
Craig’s reunion with old school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) turns out to be bittersweet, a chance encounter marred by Craig having just lost his job. Their rapport is immediately unsteady: Craig is a shirt-tucked-in family man, while Vince is fairly salt-of-the-earth, a vulgarian not opposed to discussing his bedroom exploits out-loud. To snooty Craig, Vince is merely one potential future outcome. Class warfare amidst the lower middle class, because of societal assumptions enforced by the higher class.
That higher class manifests itself as Colin, a walking party favor played by the rambunctious David Koechner. Seeing the duo at the bar, and seizing upon an opportunity, he and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) start pitting Vince and Craig against each other in a series of arbitrary games. Can Craig down this shot of vodka quicker? Can Vince make that girl slap him? Will Craig start a fight? Each bet carries an escalating dollar value: Vince’s desperation seems characteristic of his attitude (and the film seems oddly, subtly judgmental towards him because of it), but Craig is looking at an unhappy family and an eviction notice. Eventually, Colin mentions bigger dollar figures, and Craig and Vince listen like curious pets, while the indifferent Violent types away at her phone.
The film’s escalating stakes showcase a canny contrast between Craig and Vince. Craig is so straight-laced it’s as if he were rendered in 8-bit graphics. And in several darkly-lit rooms, Vince’s shaggy beard blends with his dark shirt, making him appear more slovenly than he is. While Craig is seen clearly, Vince is ultimately a bit less hard to place, visually and ideologically. Craig is the film’s protagonist, but the movie almost seems like it doesn’t know what to do with Vince, who begins to act out of petty jealousy. In a role of subtle intelligence, Koechner is able to con them into thinking they’re his party buddies. Once the dollar amount escalates to a considerable level, that level of artifice vanishes.
Ultimately, the movie can’t seem to keep it together as to who Colin and Violet really are. Violet’s poker-face never slips, and Paxton plays her as something of a glorified prop. And Koechner’s mixture of viciousness and folksiness never suggests a greater depth. What pleasure does he really get out of seeing Craig and Vince as rats in a maze? As the film continues, and the chasm between the duo deepens, Colin becomes more remote, an excitable ringside barker fueled by audacity and cocaine. And as unlikely the union is between Koechner and Paxton, it never even begins to make ironic sense, given the lack of contextualization given to their relationship and the night’s activities. Is it really Violet’s birthday, as Colin says? Are they really a couple? How often do they do this sort of thing?
Similarly, the escalating tension never seems remotely plausible. The practical Craig eventually collects enough money to erase his debt, but with one foot out the door it feels as if the movie holds a beat too long, allowing an insincere greed to seep in that keeps him a part of this competition. And by the time Craig and Vince are committing competing crimes, a sensible mind would have to interject and offer that a coked-up Colin isn’t going to protect them from being charged with something. It’s a clever idea for a short, but stretched to feature length, allows the mind to wander. Particularly considering the movie doesn’t really go to any unpredictable places: Colin compares the competition to Fear Factor, and unfortunately the viewer would deem this comparison unflattering.
For all these faults, Cheap Thrills is a lot better than it needs to be. Thank the performances. Healy brings gravitas to the exasperated everyman shtick, while Embry realistically captures the mindset of a regular guy just a couple of drinks away from going to seed.
And Koechner is an absolute devil. This isn’t a comic showcase for the actor, but really a chance for him to plumb unused depths. Divorced from the hijinks of his comedic career, you see the darkness that lingers behind his smile. When Colin uses it on Craig and Vince, they respond, because there’s a dollar sign coming from that mouth. Its Koechner’s eyes that tell a different story: you can’t help but be a little put-off when they hatefully communicate, “I will destroy you.”