Dark, twisted, and emotionally disturbed in ways almost too delightful and clever to spoil, the coal black comedy Cheap Thrills certainly lives up to its name and then some thanks to clever writing and solid performances.
Struggling writer and married father Craig (Pat Healy) has just lost his oil changing gig and finds his new family on the verge of eviction. Depressed, Craig meets up with Vince (Ethan Embry) for a drink. The pair hadn’t seen each other for five years with Craig going respectable and Vince getting money as a loan shark enforcer. While Vince can’t bail his buddy out for the full $4,500 that he needs to just get to even, the pair are approached by a married couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) out for the wife’s birthday. There’s nothing that the husband can’t make better by throwing around exuberant amounts of cash at it or by doing some coke or pills. Throughout the night the couple engages the estranged friends in a game of dares for cash that get sicker and sicker as the night progresses.
Becoming a decidedly different kind of dark comedy about halfway through, E.L. Katz’s film about friendship and desperation escalates somewhat awkwardly, but rebounds nicely with a brutal, but surprisingly thought-provoking finale that proves that its set up was always leading somewhere even when pieces don’t seem to fit. That’s not to say that the film’s twists don’t work, but that every even seemingly inconsequential action will eventually lead somewhere darker for these characters. It’s a film with nary a wasted, nasty smelling breath.
The film’s sense of dark humour also never raises to laugh-out-loud funny levels, but it isn’t really supposed to all the time, with most of the outlandish gags (including one that will undoubtedly make some viewers turn into immediate vegetarians) played perfectly straight in spite of their utter lunacy. The serious tone makes for a better film, and Koechner and Embry are especially embracing it head on, while Healy does a great job as the put-upon everyman pushed to extremes and Paxton delivering a brave performance in the film as the nonplussed sexpot.
It’s a strangely satisfying blend of shocks and misanthropic humour that effectively hits the sweet spot between being really smart and extremely nasty. It’s essentially a claustrophobic two setting film, but ist out of control nature makes it feel like something a lot bigger. It’s an unnervingly sinister delight that delivers twice what the film’s title suggests.