Film and TV

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Cheap Thrills

Title: Cheap Thrills

Doesn't Noah Open Today? Not screened for media. Make of that what you will.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three Agent Orange albums out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Down on his luck dad abases himself and others for fun and profit. Mostly profit.

Tagline: "What doesn't kill you makes you richer."

Better Tagline: "I triple dog dare you."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Trickle-down economics are a bitch, as Craig (Pat Healy) could tell you. Husband to a loving wife and father to a 15-month old son, he's also living a lie: the missus doesn't know they're about to be evicted or that he just lost his second job. Drowning his sorrows at a nearby bar, he barely has time to reconnect with high school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) before the men are approached by a couple keen on paying them to perform a series of increasingly unpleasant tasks.

"Critical" Analysis; Most of us remember daring our friends to do stupid things when we were younger. It's basic human nature to want to see others, even those closest to us, humiliate themselves in as spectacular a manner as possible. This — along with our use of cutlery — is one of the things that separates us from lower forms of life.

But we were naive, satisfying ourselves with bragging rights and insults, when apparently there was money to be made the entire time. At the very least, that's the premise in Cheap Thrills. Craig seems like a pretty decent guy at first (at least compared to the rougher edged Vince, who used to break arms for debt collectors), even if there is something of a Falling Down vibe about the guy. Maybe it's the glasses.

And E.L. Katz's first movie (he's both writer and director) doesn't waste any time, presenting us with Craig's sad sack scenario and then, tantalizingly, a possible way out of it, all while keeping the whole thing down to a tidy 86 minutes. Cheap Thrills is truly Hobbes-ian: nasty, brutish, and short.

It's also pretty entertaining, if you aren't put off by little things like degradation of the human spirit or severed extremities. Credit for that goes largely to the cast, who bring humanity to the increasingly implausible scenarios. Healy reminds me of Anton Yelchin's older brother, and is pretty believable as a guy forced into desperation by circumstance. Though to be fair, the choice to go ... where he eventually goes is all on him, especially after his wife discovers his deception and still offers to forgive him. His insistence on lying to her in the first place also doesn't make sense. But without guys like him, roughly half the comedies out there would disappear.

One should also note Ethan Embry's solid performance. If you haven't been following the guy's career much since Can't Hardly Wait, you might be in for a surprise. But where Vince could easily have been a simplistic character, Embry ends up making him the most sympathetic of the bunch.

Which is pretty easy when you're opposite David Koechner, who plays Colin, loving husband to Violet (Sara Paxton), whose birthday he simply wants to commemorate by paying a couple of guys to humiliate themselves. Koechner turns menace and hilarity on and off effortlessly, bringing genuine humor to a character that's frankly psychotic.

Not everything works, of course. In addition to the simplistic setup, the script and situations are often only palatable thanks to the cast's efforts, and you'll likely see the ending coming 20 minutes in. Otherwise, a solid first effort from Katz, and unsurprisingly the first movie auctioned off after this year's SXSW Film Festival.

Cheap Thrills is playing today at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park.Tickets anyone?

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar