MRR Review: "Cheap Thrills"

Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films

Rating: NR
Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Directed by: E.L. Katz
Genre: Comedy / Thriller

Fans of dark comedies with an undertone of social commentary will enjoy the outrageous antics of the wild and unpredictable characters in "Cheap Thrills." This humorous and disturbing film is the directorial debut of E.L. Katz, a screenwriter for such movies as "Home Sick" and "Pop Skull." Katz's black humor and willingness to test the limits of good taste permeate the film. Some viewers might be a little put off by the bizarre and occasionally appalling scenes they witness, but most will be mesmerized by the film's determination to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in a mainstream film.

When Craig, an average guy played by Pat Healy, loses his job, he faces eviction. A dedicated family man, Craig is utterly distraught and desperate to avoid having to tell his wife that the family is on the brink of homelessness. To drown his sorrows, Craig visits a local bar. He runs into an old classmate named Vince, played by Ethan Embry. Vince is facing his own financial problems, and the two men wonder how they can resolve their difficulties.

One of the key aspects of the film is how powerfully the viewer identifies with Craig. The screenwriters have made him someone whose problems are the same ones that many people face in reality. Most members of the audience have had financial troubles at some point in their lives, which gives many viewers a strong connection to the main character.

When the two friends meet an eccentric wealthy man and his younger wife at the bar, the wild and sometimes violent proceedings that characterize the film begin in earnest.  Colin, the wealthy guy, and Violet, his sexy and bored wife, are a couple of amoral individuals who use their wealth to search for cheap thrills, hence, the title of the film. Colin, portrayed perfectly by David Koechner, offers Craig and Vince monetary rewards for performing a variety of absurd, outrageous and sometimes dangerous acts.

In the screenplay, the two financially strapped friends begin performing appalling and degrading acts shortly after they meet Colin. The writers approach the subject more subtlety. In the film, Colin gradually encourages Craig and Vince to perform increasingly dangerous and violent acts by offering them cash.

During the escalation of events, the viewer can't help but wondering how far the two men will go for the money Colin is offering. Vince has fewer scruples than his friend and seems up for almost anything, but Craig is much more conflicted. He wants to help his family out of their dire financial straits, but he is torn about his actions. He is a basically a good guy at heart who would never commit any of these violent or dangerous acts on his own.

The film's eeriness is heightened by the artistic choices made by the director. He shoots some of the scenes at odd angles, which creates a sense that the characters have entered a strange new world, one that is similar to the world we all recognize, but much weirder. In this world, absurd and violent events are the norm, and the boundaries between right and wrong have been erased.

The film leads the audience into areas where they might not feel comfortable, but it also asks important questions. How far would someone go to extricate themselves from a bad situation? Would they be able to withstand the temptation of large rolls of cash, or would they abandon their morals and degrade themselves for money? Everyone who sees the film must wonder if they would have the willpower to resist such temptation.

Even though it poses serious moral questions about how people act under pressure, the film maintains a sense of humor about humanity's foibles and flaws. The result is a memorable and entertaining film that makes a powerful impression. Audiences will laugh during the film and will also wonder how they would respond if faced with similar circumstances.

Dealing with a serious subject matter in a humorous way is never easy for filmmakers, especially since many moviegoers want their comedies to remain light and fluffy. A film such as "Cheap Thrills," which addresses issues of morality, dealing with extreme financial distress and making decisions out of desperation, is bound to have some very dark moments. For a dedicated family man like Craig, facing job loss and eviction is difficult and devastating, which makes this film's gloomy elements somewhat warranted. This film breaks many rules, however, by incorporating hilarious and provocative moments into the plot that audiences are sure to find entertaining.