By Michael Bergeron
Cheap Thrills isn’t just the name of a Big Brother and the Holding Company album. The film Cheap Thrills, opening exclusively this weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park, appears on the surface to be a comedy with some thriller genre elements. In reality it’s also a smart and even seditious story about greed set in the world of the haves and have-nots.
Two friends reunite at a bar after not having seen each other in five years. Pat Healy is always an interesting actor especially after his creepy turn in Compliance. Ethan Embry, a recognizable child and young adult star (Can’t Hardly Wait) is actually unrecognizable under a beard and knit wool cap. The duo bonds over drinks but dynamics shift when they meet a gregarious man and his wife (David Koechner and Sara Paxton as Colin and Violet).
At first Colin seems flush with cash offering, say, two hundred bones to get the woman at the bar to slap you. The quartet head back to Colin’s manse and the stakes take an upward trajectory. Drugs and drinks ensue and the dares continue only with a personal bent.
Such as - would you take a shit right now in my neighbor’s house for $1200? Would you cut off your little finger for $25-grand? Wait, the other guy will do it for $20,000.
Seeing Embry playing a guy who might have hidden and thuggish motives was eye opening. Its like seeing Anthony Michael Hall in a movie as an adult and all beefed up and you’re like, “that was the skinny kid in Breakfast Club?” But it’s Koechner who stands out the most. I’ve never seen him not being the clown. When I think of Koechner I think of the restaurant manager in Waiting … or of course Champ Kind from Anchorman. In Cheap Thrills Koechner uses his comic timing natch, but there’s also a deeper vibe going on, one designed with malicious and maybe even evil intent. Great acting chops are on display throughout matched by the direction from E.L. Katz that compels you to wonder what’s going to happen next.
Maybe the reason Cheap Thrills plays so well is the way it touches a nerve. Very few among us do not have our price.