Runs Thurs., April 3–Thurs., April 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown and SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 85 minutes.
Intentional or not, the setup to Cheap Thrills recalls Joel Schumacher’s 1993 man-in-a-rage thriller Falling Down. In that film, Michael Douglas played an uptight, bespectacled man thwarted by divorce, a pink slip, and a busted air conditioner. Here the bespectacled hero is Craig (Pat Healy), a failed writer beset by a needy (yet loving) young family, a pink slip, and an eviction notice. It’s not a particularly artful way to start a story; in both these films the tear-down’s clumsy quickness ups the anxiety but spares the nuance. And yet this is an effective hook, as old as George Bailey: With a man stripped almost entirely of ego at a point of pure desperation, a filmmaker can do anything he wants. Schumacher sent his bottomed-out protagonist on an angry rampage fueled by white-male entitlement. Director E.L. Katz takes Craig on a very different journey of human debasement.
Here’s how it goes. Craig walks into to a bar, runs into an old skateboarding buddy named Vince (now the muscle for a bookie), and shares his misfortune. Then a rich guy and his cellphone-twiddling wife show up and begin throwing money around, paying Vince (Ethan Embry) and Craig to do shots and act like clowns. These dares-for-cash lead the two buddies to the couple’s house, where they realize they’ve stumbled into a high-stakes contest that Colin (Dave Koechner) has arranged to entertain his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) for her birthday.
There’s nothing clever about the plot or interesting about the characters, briefly sketched by Katz as a formality before pushing his pawns into the game. But there is a kind of Jackass-style tension here, as we try to guess what new disgusting trick will be requested of these two marionettes. Cheap Thrills is a dumb gross-out flick at its core, salted with a bit of social commentary. Its obvious subject is the voyeurism that drives the ratings for shows like Survivor or—as seems more the inspiration here—the dearly departed Fear Factor. Instead of eating Madagascar hissing cockroaches, though, Katz has his contestants chopping off digits and eating the neighbors’ dog. (Note: Healy will introduce Thursday’s screening at SIFF Cinema Uptown.)