Admit it: We've all had one of those days when fate seems to be laughing at us from the moment we step out of bed and stub our toe on the dresser. In
Cheap Thrills, the wickedly fun feature debut from director E.L. Katz, we find out just how far an average guy is willing to go in order to get one over on fate after receiving a most unusual opportunity. When hardworking mechanic and new father Craig (Pat Healy) sees the eviction notice stuck to his front door, he feels like his day couldn't get any worse. Unceremoniously fired from his job just a few hours later, Craig realizes just how wrong he was, and ventures down to the local bar to drown his sorrows. Later, just as Craig is about to leave, his estranged pal Vince (Ethan Embry) takes a seat at the bar and insists that they catch up on old times. That reunion is soon interrupted, however, when boisterous Colin (David Koechner) and his brooding wife Violet (Sara Paxton) invite the pair to join them in celebrating Violet's birthday. Before long, the booze is flowing freely and everyone is feeling loose. The evening then takes an unusual turn when Colin starts offering Craig and Vince cash for completing simple tasks, like taking a shot first or getting slapped at the bar. After the party moves to a strip club and quickly goes south, the foursome end up back at Colin and Violet's place, where the game escalates and old grudges start to resurface. A gruesome exercise in escalation, Cheap Thrills displays its mischievous intentions right there in the title. In the hands of writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, the screenplay plunges us right into the sad-sack existence of the hapless Craig, who has his reasons for not staying in touch with Vince. But while the past indeed plays a crucial role in this cynical comedy of terrors, it's the present that Haaga and Chirchirillo are primarily concerned with. Given the urgency of Craig's situation, that approach is certainly appropriate to the story, and by offering us precious little information about Colin and Violet, the writers keep our wheels turning while we try to figure out exactly where all of this is heading. Meanwhile, it's up to the actors to sell this outlandish scenario, and fortunately the entire cast are up to the task. With his thinning sandy hair, nondescript features, and seemingly unflappable attitude after a few drinks, Craig is the perfect everyman for viewers to project themselves onto, as well as the ideal foil for Vince's embittered thug. That may sound like a simple role to portray, but were it not for Healy's talent at underplaying, the character could have easily lost his moral compass and our sympathies. Instead, Healy manages to keep Craig relatable -- even after the character's dark side begins to emerge. Embry's Vince, on the other hand, is a character we feel could turn violent at any second: Not only is there a telling line of dialogue early in the film, but he wears a contemptuous scowl every time he loses the upper hand. Regarding the mysterious couple who set these events in motion, Paxton, like Healy, underplays to surprising effect. Her raccoon eyes perpetually lit by the glow of her mobile phone, Violet is the blank-faced embodiment of millennial detachment, seemingly incapable of expressing emotion unless she's manipulating someone. It's in those moments that Paxton is downright chilling. Then, of course, there's Koechner. An actor who excels at playing loudmouthed bores, Koechner is definitely in his comfort zone here, and the screenwriters smartly use that in their favor as events turn increasingly grim. With his fat wallet and unpredictable personality, Colin is the life of the party -- an outwardly confident guy who doesn't lose his cool even when he's got a knife to his throat. But while the screenplay doesn't exactly get specific about Colin's career or background, the character's comments about going to extremes in order to impress Violet raise some interesting questions about the dangers of clinging to youth, and hint that Craig and Vince aren't the only ones in a desperate situation. It's a clever play on Koechner's popular persona, and it's handled with knowing precision. If you still haven't figured out the game by now, the only thing left to do is to watch Cheap Thrills and see for yourself how it all pans out. It may not offer the most astute social commentary or a twist that will leave you reeling, but like a cup of strong black coffee, it's a simple, deliciously bitter treat.
All Movie Guide - Jason Buchanan