A Fistful of Dollars: Cheap Thrills

FILM, Film Festivals
The colour of money is red in E.L. Katz’s fiendishly funny debut feature.

Aptly titled Cheap Thrills is smart enough to give the audience some meat to chew on before causing them to gag on their next off-colour bite. A comedy marbled with darkness, Evan Katz’s film strikes an excellent balance between cringe humour, out-and-out laughs, and its wryly thoughtful undercurrent. Most importantly, Cheap Thrills is actually funny. I’m not often one for out-loud-laughs at what others seem to find terribly amusing (really, what is it about Anchorman that makes you crave a second run?), but I couldn’t help hysterical outbursts on several shameless occasions along with a good number of cringes and head turning moments.

The setup and structure of the film is pretty simple and works in the movie’s favour. Craig (the always impressive Pat Healy of Compliance and The Innkeepers) is an off his luck writer working a blue collar job to support his family, only things aren’t really working out. After the worst day he heads out for a much needed drink and has a chance run in with an old school friend Vince (a more rough cut Ethan Embry than I’ve seen)—one of those guys who never really grew up—who harangues Craig into having a few more than intended. Not long into the evening, they meet Colin (a reptilian David Koechner at his best) and Violet (Sara Paxton in bored femme fatale mode), a rich young(ish) couple out for a good time. A game of dares-for-money ensues which quickly morphs into, as aging hipster-douche Colin puts it, a night they’ll “never forget.” In the vein of grown-up Superbad with less dick jokes and a darker tone, Cheap Thrills proves a welcome, thoroughly good time addition to the ‘nexploitation’ genre.

Katz, who’s been cutting his teeth for the last eight years (co-)writing horror and genre pieces such as Adam Wingard’s Home Sick (2005) and Pop Skull (2007), drew together an excellent cast and, on a short schedule and low budget, displays a deft directorial hand pulling together such a blended genre piece. Cheap Thrills is a kind of ’70s exploitation meets ’80s comedy-horror melange presenting a continuum of tonal choices along the way. Katz wisely opts to keep the comedy to the fore and constructs the narrative trajectory in such a way as to skirt along the edges of, but not quite crossover into “that would never happen” territory. The premise is contextualised in the incredibly stressful and freshly exacerbated situation of co-lead Craig, and each narrative sequence builds upon the last so that actions that might appear ridiculous on a cold call eventually become believable character choices, à la ‘boiling frog syndrome’.

Those (like me) who enjoyed Ti West’s The Innkeepers (NZIFF 2011) will be excited to see Pat Healy and Sara Paxton lock horns again, though this time round it is Paxton who presents the more cynical, world weary figure despite her relative youth. David Koechner proves as well suited to darker material as he does to his more mainstream Saturday Night Live type outings. His Colin is played three parts eager-hungry miscreant to one part controlling sinister exploiter. He and Paxton’s Violet appear to be on equal terms but you could also read his character as just a little subservient. As the lead pair Healy and Embry bring an appropriately fractious chemistry as old friends who haven’t remained so for a reason. Healy brings his character Craig on a believable emotional arc finishing on the most excellently unhinged final shot of the film. Embry—who may rings bells as the young guy trying to get the unattainable girl in ’90s high school comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, or more recently as mysterious interloper Greg Mendell from season two of fantasy procedural television series Once Upon A Time—is effectively played against type as the rough-housing, blue collar friend. Together all four riff nicely off each other via excellently penned characters and scenarios that make the most of the generic ‘what if it was me appeal’ inherent in such a story premise.

Thematically the film, like many in this day and age (see Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy or Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, for example), explores the context of current ongoing economic instability with the felt impacts of this directly guiding narrative movement. Cheap Thrills goes one step further by taking a very obvious stab at social class divides and the slow erosion of traditional ‘barriers’ against poverty such as higher education. Thankfully, none of this is approached in an overt preachy fashion, but its inclusion certainly adds some unexpected weight to a film that might otherwise leave you with a good laugh and not much else. It will be interesting to see whether the film makes money via its planned theatrical and VOD runs. I certainly hope it does, as I’d like to see both more from Katz and more films of this nature/calibre being funded into existence.

Cheap Thrills’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.