It was only a matter of time before the recent hyper-raunchy comedy style exemplified by “The Hangover” (and repurposed, in watered-down form, for things like “Identity Thief” and “Horrible Bosses“), would take a dark, seedily indie-movie turn. And that’s what “Cheap Thrills,” which was one of the few movies to acquire distribution at the South By Southwest Film Festival, really is: it’s the hysterical, son-of-“Jackass” tomfoolery of “The Hangover” taken to an absurdly nihilistic degree. For the most part it works, despite some tonal wobbliness, although it should be noted that “Cheap Thrills” is not for the squeamish or easily offended.
The plot of “Cheap Thrills” is the stuff of a million hastily scribbled short stories (it also bears, at least in passing, a superficial resemblance to the Quentin Tarantino section of anthology movie “Four Rooms“) – a schlub and new father (Pat Healy from “The Innkeepers“) is facing total financial ruin. He’s about to get evicted from his apartment and he goes to ask his boss (his wife’s father) for a job, only to get fired instead. While drowning his sorrows, he runs into a skuzzy former friend (Ethan Embry) and a wealthy, bizarre couple (played by David Koechner from “Anchorman” and Sara Paxton, also from “The Innkeepers”).
The man starts to offer Embry and Healy money to do stupid shit – take a shot of this, throw darts at that – again, this isn’t exactly cutting edge fodder for a feature-length narrative (we flashed immediately to the infamous season twelve episode of “The Simpsons,” “Homer vs. Dignity,” which climaxed with Homer being sexually assaulted by a panda while wearing a bear suit). Healy’s financial hardships give the premise some legitimate weight, and the feeling of getting swept up in the sensations that go along with reconnecting with an old friend and meeting some fascinating new people, is realized pretty well.
Eventually Healy and Embry go back to the couple’s luxurious home, and that’s where things start to really ramp up. It’s Paxton’s birthday, and Koechner wants to really give her a good show. After Embry tries to steal a safe full of money from Koechner, he lets them in on the fact that the money is actually for them – if they complete a series of increasingly bizarre and debasing gags. Embry and Healy are in.
Things begin simply (and disgustingly) enough, with Koechner charging them with taking a shit inside their neighbor’s home. The neighbor routinely lets the dog shit on Koechner’s lawn, and he wants some revenge. Embry takes things too far, though, and kidnaps the dog… And that’s only the beginning. Then the proceedings get really, really dark, leading to (among other things) adultery, self-mutilation, and murder, with increasingly Chuck Palahniuk-ian grossness. It’s all “a little much.”
Thankfully, the performances are all, if not totally humanistic, then at least passably relatable. Healy, who was a nebbish weirdo in “The Innkeepers” more than anything else, shows surprising range here as a man at first morally conflicted and then determined to establish at least some kind of financial footing for his family. Embry, known for his squeaky clean performances in things like “That Thing You Do” and “Once Upon a Time,” dirties himself up nicely as a scumbag who you’d rather not have as a part of your life (his dangerousness might be posturing, but it’s still got an edge). And Koechner, saddled, one assumes because of his comedic background, with the most cartoonish role in the entire movie, equips himself well, despite virtually no character development or background.
Sadly, it’s Sara Paxton who pays the price for all this male posturing. Instead of being a fully formed character, she parades around in a (admittedly adorable) shirt-dress, makes smoky fuck-me eyes, and takes photos on her smart phone. Paxton is a gifted comedienne and performer and she is undeniably sexy, but none of these traits are put to any particular use in “Cheap Thrills.” There’s a subversive undercurrent that suggests, like Amy Adams in “The Master,” she might be the one pulling all the strings, but this isn’t elaborated on to any meaningful degree. Instead, it just seems like a wasted opportunity and an underutilization of one of the most exciting young actresses working in independent film today. (At the very least, though, it’s better than “Shark Night.”)
Director E.L. Katz and screenwriters Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo are keenly aware of what they can get away with and what they can’t, and how to ratchet up the tension while increasing the movie’s darkness, until things get claustrophobically bleak and charcoal-sooty. There are some occasional missteps, tonally speaking, along the way to its pitch-black climax (they are too good to reveal here, so let’s just say that a severed digit doesn’t need to suffer the indignity that this one does), but for the most part the filmmakers do a good job of maneuvering the dicey waters of potential outrage.
If there’s anything that separates this from a hyper-violent, indie movie variation on “The Hangover” (and honestly, we’re not sure there is anything), it’s the Healy character. Unlike most movies that use the current economic crisis as a dramatic backdrop, Healy’s character is vibrant enough that the audience can make an easy connection and go through the journey with him. No matter how despicable he becomes, it’s easily to know where he came from. [B]