In its long, roughhousing middle, E.L. Katz's grimly comic thumb-in-your-eye Cheap Thrills glances against a rare kind of mad-millionaire ridiculousness. A compelling Pat Healy stars as Craig, one of those movie schnooks who, in order to have his particular adventure, must lose everything in the first five minutes. Once things get tediously bad for him they get seriously good for the movie — for a while.
Craig winds up at a grimy L.A. bar where he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), a prickly tough guy from high school, and, more promisingly, the well-heeled Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). Perverse Colin peels C-notes from his wallet and invites the men to participate in nasty competitions: Be the first to get that woman at the bar to slap your face. Be the first to slap that stripper in the ass. It's male-desperation comedy touched with the ritualized humiliations of reality TV and the nihilism of so many L.A.-set indie features.
Katz stages the contests with infectious energy. Better still, he keeps us guessing, much like Craig, who often tries to back out of the escalating nastiness. Is money-flinging Colin a Rodney Dangerfield type, the wealthy loon purchasing good times? Is he a Jigsaw the Clown, scheming to trap and torture the greedy and wicked? With Koechner's assured, magnetic, carefully slippery performance goes the film's very genre: It's a spoiler to reveal whether this is comedy or horror. Too bad the last half hour feels like Katz is rubbing our face in the several turds he shows us, reminding us that people are awful. Of course they are. What else do you have to tell us?