Cheap Thrills

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/10/13 00:54:26

"Not particularly thrilling, but the cheapness is debatable."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 15: Given the fairly impressive cast, decent behind-the-scenes talent, and loudly proclaimed praise for "Cheap Thrills" coming out of its festival appearances, I expected more from the movie. What I got was an acceptable gross-out movie with a nugget or two of commentary somewhere in its body, but overall it feels kind of hollow and familiar. It's got its moments, but it's not much more than passably entertaining.

Craig (Pat Healy) is still a writer in that he has a blog he posts to regularly, but these days he works as a mechanic - at least, until he gets laid off on the day he was going to ask for a much-needed raise. Drowning his sorrows in a bar afterward, he runs into old high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), who runs in some shady circles these days. They wind up sharing a very expensive bottle of tequila with Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a wealthy couple slumming it for Violet's birthday. At some point, the "$20 if you..." dares start, naturally escalating in both price and outlandishness.

That's not quite all there is to the story, but it's pretty close. The plot takes a turn when the group wind up at Colin's & Violet's house, but it winds up being less of an interesting twist than an acknowledgment that the characters will almost certainly have a certain idea, so the script therefore must detour through it before returning to the main path. Before and after that, the movie basically comes down to details, with stunts that go from tacky to gross to mean in a pretty straight line as the film goes on. Maybe, somewhere, writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo have something to say about the rich exploiting the poor for their own amusement and the poor going along with it because they think they can get rich too, but that's not exactly cutting, original insight presented in a new way.

The most surprising thing, perhaps, is that there's not a whole lot of chemistry on display considering the cast. Ti West's The Innkeepers, for instance, was built almost entirely on how much fun it was to watch Pat Healy and Sara Paxton play off each other, so it's somewhat disappointing for those who saw that film to see that pairing not really spark when it comes up. Not that any really do - not Colin & Violet, or even Craig & Vince, at least until they're being pitted against each other - even then, it's more like Healy and Embry are both working off Koechner at the same time, rather than their competition building off them as a pair.

Koechner, in fact, winds up being the best thing about the movie. He takes his likable screen persona and twists it, initially letting it seem like Colin's sort of clueless as he waves his wad of cash around, letting just enough self-aware malevolence creep in to make the audience realize that's not the case, and then snapping back to the big, folksy, crude but genial guy well enough that the audience finds themselves buying into it and laughing pretty hard at his delivery despite his awfulness. Embry and Healy both manage some great stunned reactions, even as they crank up the competitive intensity. Paxton, unfortunately, is pretty badly underused; she can do aloof well enough, but it's not nearly as entertaining as what everyone else is doing.

Some of the jokes, tasteless as they are, do manage to get a fair amount of laughs - director E.L. Katz deploys Koechner with precision and knows how to use sudden reversals to get the audience to laugh and sometimes crank the tension up a little. There's fun to be had here, especially if you don't mind it with a side order of nastiness. I'm not sure there's quite a feature's worth - we get the idea soon enough, so a fair chunk of the movie's middle is just ramping up to the really nasty stuff at the end.

Katz and company do that well enough for this to be a fun crowded-theater movie with the right audience. There's just not a lot to it - the dark comedy is too familiar to fans of this genre, and being nasty in predictable ways isn't nearly as much fun as being surprising.

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