Review: ‘Cheap Thrills’ is a semi-realistic dark class satire

Pat Healy (with Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton) performs escalating games in "Cheap Thrills." Credit: Drafthouse Films
Pat Healy (with Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton) performs escalating games in “Cheap Thrills.”
Credit: Drafthouse Films

‘Cheap Thrills’
Director: E.L. Katz
Stars: Pat Healy, David Koechner
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Tone is everything. From the premise of “Cheap Thrills,” one might expect a broad, dark comedy with satirical overtones. David Koechner — best known for oblivious, knee-slapping bro’s bros in “Anchorman” and on “The Office” — plays Colin, a wealthy stranger who lures two losers into an ever-escalating game of dares. For each one he offers a tantalizing sum; the more extreme taunts claim top dollar.

His targets are Craig (Pat Healy), a nice guy with a family who’s nonetheless facing eviction and has just lost his job; and Vince (Ethan Embry), a tattooed wastrel Craig knew in high school. The two meet at a dive bar, where they meet Colin and his passive, almost doped-up-seeming wife Violet (Sara Paxton). At first Colin asks them to get slapped by a barfly. Then he asks Craig to punch a fearsome bouncer. Then it’s back to their place, where things quickly get skeezier.

This isn’t, despite the presence of actors known for being funny — especially Healy, most recognizable as the mordant-pathetic clerk (opposite Paxton) in “The Innkeepers” and his casually creepy prank caller in “Compliance” — simply a black comedy. It doesn’t even have jokes. The dares themselves are funny in concept, but the comedy elements don’t try too hard to be funny. It actually takes this, to a degree, seriously.

Director E.L. Katz gives the film a naturalism not expected from the goofy advertising campaign. This could have been designed as a revved-up demo reel, but Katz mostly plays it straight, allowing the comedy to come out naturally, and easing the audience into its occasional forays into genuine darkness. The actors too don’t feel like caricatures. All four are excellent, especially Koechner, who resists playing his monster as a broad menace, even suggesting moments of decency and weakness that make his actions all the more skin-crawling.

Frankly it goes too far at least twice. It’s clear the screenwriters hit walls and needed easy way outs, but even played semi-realistic the moments feel unearned, cheap. Still, it’s mostly a smooth success, not overplaying the class satire and becoming funnier and intimidating because of it, even when it simply can’t figure out a way to end.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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