While SXSW captured headlines recently for a rapper getting arrested for starting a riot and a pop icon being voluntarily puked on, one of the fruits of last year’s festival is hitting theaters this week with the appropriately named “Cheap Thrills.”
The cult classic in the making by first-time director E.L Katz starts off innocently enough, just like a crime drama or an episode of “Dr. Drew.” Loving husband and new father Craig (Pat Healy) is about to have one of the worst mornings ever as he rips an eviction letter off his door on the way to work. That’s not the only eviction he’s treated to, though, as he’s also fired from his job as a low-end auto mechanic. Instead of going home, he drowns his sorrows in the nearest dive bar he can find.
Of course, bars in the morning are filled with nasty drinks and even nastier characters, one of which is Craig’s old high school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry), a collection agent who brags that he once broke a guy’s arm in front of his daughter for $80. And you thought collection calls were bad.
The two are approached by Colin (David Koechner), the type of guy that screams “I make good money in sales and can prove it.” He’s quick to hand out a handshake and, more importantly, free drinks alongside his trophy wife Violet (Sara Paxton), who has ten times the sex appeal and one tenth the need to talk. Before you can say “Fear Factor,” Colin is daring the pair to do crazy things for money. It starts out tame enough, like seeing who can down Tequila shots the quickest or get slapped by a cocktail waitress, but things take a turn at a nearby strip club where Craig takes the worst kind of dare by punching a bouncer. Our hero awakens in Colin’s home with a bloody nose and the introduction of Phase 2 of their night of Dollars for Dares. This time, the stakes are in the thousands and get as dangerous and seductive as their hosts.
“Cheap Thrills” is the kind of thriller that is hard to avert your gaze from. With a study in increasingly violent behavior perhaps not seen since “Fight Club,” Katz’s character display of two reunited friends who constantly one up themselves for the almighty dollar is timely and more than a bit scary. The script by Trent Haaga and David Chrchirillo wisely sticks to the theme that it may be “bros before hoes,” but “bros before dough” is another matter entirely.
Koechner may be best known for his comedic roles in “The Office” and the “Anchorman” films, but between the introverted Todd Packer and the bombastic Champ Kind, his role as Colin samples the best of both and creates something deliciously evil. He manages to seduce both friends into not only betraying what they believe in, but also themselves in the process. That’s a long way from Ron Burgundy.
Healy and Embry are excellently cast as two friends driven to desperation and fueled by greed. Healy embodies the everyman who was picked on in school, and Embry is the cool guy you remember in school but knew would never make it to your reunion. The talented duo makes Katz’s directorial debut a lot easier by offering thought-provoking performances that will make us all question ourselves at the end of the month when bills are due. “Cheap Thrills” lives up to its name, and like many of life’s guilty pleasures, it wouldn’t be a surprise if audiences wanted another helping.