United States. Directed by E.L. Katz, 2013. Starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton. 88 minutes.
Let’s not mince words here: the global economic downturn sucks ass. The modern aristocracy–the ultra-wealthy, the 1% of the 1%–uses every means at its disposal to put as much financial distance between itself and the great unwashed as possible. Unemployment remains high, and those who do have jobs find themselves overworked and underpaid, the cost of living exceeding the value of their paychecks. More and more, members of the working class find themselves resorting to desperate measures to make ends meet.
That’s right, I think I do detect a faint whiff of social commentary coming from Cheap Thrills.
Pat Healy stars as Craig Daniels, a once-aspiring writer who gave up his dream in favor of an actual paying job at a mechanic’s shop. Then he finds himself a victim of what Corporate America euphemistically calls a “RIF” (reduction-in-force) and has no way to support his equally unemployed wife and infant child.
That’s when he runs into his childhood friend Vince (Ethan Embry), who’s turned to crime to make a living, and a pair of happy-go-lucky newlyweds Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). The later two are rich and looking for a good time. What’s their idea of a good time? Paying Colin and Vince increasingly large amounts of money to perform increasingly outrageous, insane, and/or dangerous acts. $50 to slap a stripper’s ass, $200 to punch a nightclub bouncer in the face. The catch is that Colin turns it into a competition, so that while both Craig and Vince can break into a neighbor’s house and take a dump on the floor, only one of them gets $1200.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything, of course, and thank God for that, because Craig and Vince’s loss is our gain: Cheap Thrills is as funny as it is cynical and vicious.
The screenplay, co-written by Trent Haaga (also responsible for Chop, Deadgirl and many Troma productions) and David Chirchirillo, is a gem that succeeds on every possible level. Its surface goal is to amuse the audience with the sight of people doing stupid and disgusting things for money, and if that’s all you want, you’re not going to be disappointed. Shitting on the neighbor’s floor is only the tip of the iceberg.
But comedy often depends on pathos to give it depth, and Cheap Thrills sits atop a veritable motherlode of the stuff. It’s hard not to feel for Craig, who had so much going for him, but never realized his potential and ended up in this unfortunate situation. But you might also find yourself sympathizing with Vince, who might well have never had anything going for him, and even if he did, he was never able to find a legitimate vocation. If Mel Brooks had written this movie, he might have said, “Tragedy is when you lose your job; comedy is when you haggle the price to cut off your own pinkie finger.”
The characterization works just as well for Colin, the film’s nominal villain. He’s got just about every possible material possession money can buy, and he can easily acquire those he doesn’t have. But where does he go from there? Paying people to humiliate themselves for his and his wife’s entertainment is as good a start as any.
Violet gets the least development of the four main characters but that actually works in her favor. She’s quiet, for the most part, content to observe the circus instead of becoming a direct participant (except for a couple of particularly powerful scene). She acts the part of the vapid and bored Real Trophy Housewife, letting Colin get all the attention while their marks underestimate her.
So, yes, we’ve got a crackerjack script here. That doesn’t mean anything if the cast doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull it off, and do they? Boy howdy!
Healy’s performance is a complete 180° from his turn as the bad guy in Compliance, but his unassuming and slightly nerdy demeanor pays off handsomely in both roles. He’s perfect as the film’s hapless Everyman, a guy who’s desperate to take care of his family–and who among us can’t relate to him? Embry similarly puts in a strong performance as Vince, a guy who’s more than happy to buy you a beer or a line of coke, but will also fuck your shit up if you mess with him. Paxton’s waifish Violet is a nearly spectral presence, blending into the scenery as much as a woman as gorgeous as she is possibly can, and ensuring that you rarely notice her when she doesn’t want to be noticed.
But Koechner steals the entire show in a performance that I can call “Oscar-worthy” without any sense of hyperbole or irony. He’s been a reliable supporting player for years, usually in projects far beneath his considerable talent. (A Haunted House, anyone?) Here, the material gives him a chance to shine and he rises to the challenge with gusto. His interpretation of Colin is the film’s lynchpin: a villain so open and friendly and charismatic that he’s impossible to hate, a guy who’s got money falling out of every orifice yet puts on the show of being the regular guy so well that you sometimes forget he’s richer than Mitt Romney.
With everybody writing and acting all over the place, it’s easy to overlook first-timer E.L. Katz’s direction. His style may not be particularly showy, but it’s very subtle, with some memorable compositions (anything involving Koechner and a steam iron, as seen above). The editing–which is as crucial to a comedy film than any one-liner or funny-man performance–is exceptionally tight, with not a frame going to waste. (Also, loved the tip of the hat to Funny Games at the end!)
The best comedy–at least to me–doesn’t just make us laugh. It makes us uncomfortable, it holds a mirror up to us and points out the things we’d prefer to ignore. Cheap Thrills does all this, and more–and it never forgets to entertain.