Taking the classic slogan “What would you do (ooh ooh) for a Klondike bar?” and replacing the delicious treat with thousands upon thousands of dollars, Cheap Thrills is a movie about a couple of rich people making a couple of not-rich people do things for money. Whether those things be humiliating or dangerous, that’s the name of the game. Ethical conundrums are abound in this movie, as is dark humor and superb acting. Cheap Thrills will turn some people off by its very premise, but if it doesn’t this is a film you should definitely see.
The lead is a man named Craig (Pat Lealy), although everyone gets ample screen time. Craig is a family man who is already having money problems before losing his job in an early scene. As men tend to do, he heads down to the local bar to drink his problems away, when he runs into an old friend from high school, Vince (Ethan Embry). They’re both a little down on their luck, it turns out. Soon enough, they’re called over to a table by Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). Their lives will be forever changed.
It is Violet’s birthday, we’re told. What Violet and Colin have decided to do is play a game. They will offer money to the two men to see who will perform a task the quickest. Take a shot the fastest? $300. Get a girl to slap you? $500. These tasks escalate at an alarming rate. Soon enough we’re into thousands of dollars to perform violent, life-threatening tasks. How much is it worth to you to cut off your own pinky finger? You get to learn the number for at least one of these characters.
Is this sick? Depraved? Morally wrong? Probably. But it provides you a lesson in ethics, makes you think, and provides you with — assuming you’re not diametrically opposed to the entire concept — enough entertainment for its 85-minute running time. Exactly what is your price? How far would you go to ensure that your family is able to pay this month’s rent? What would you do to make sure your family had no money problems for several months? A year? Two years? Think on it.
There isn’t a lot more to Cheap Thrills than what I’ve already described. There are a few interesting turns in the plot, which includes a couple of surprises, but there’s no big reveal or twist along the way. What you see is pretty much what you get. Character motivations are as simple as they come, Colin and Violet really are just looking to get some joy out of the other two men’s pain, and there are some truly shocking tasks the characters are asked to perform.
Maybe you have to be of sick mind to enjoy Cheap Thrills. After all, you’re essentially sitting right beside Colin and Violet — getting entertainment from the pain of others. What do we call that? Sadism? Or is there something else when you’re not directly responsible for the pain. Schadenfreude? Anyway, you get the point. You’re not paying any money (apart from your admission), but you’re watching people deface, humiliate, and injure themselves as a way to keep entertained for almost an hour and a half. What kind of awful person are you?
Sorry. I probably shouldn’t be rhetorically asking questions like that when I’m as guilty as you are. I had a blast with Cheap Thrills. I enjoyed almost every minute of it. I was laughing, I was genuinely surprised with how far they went with the concept, and I was always thinking. A film like this could be done without thought or care and be trashy exploitation garbage. But when handled with intelligence, it becomes something that easily transcends that label, even if most of the elements are the same. It’s in the details, the amount the filmmakers care, and the tone.
It also helps to have strong performances, and in Cheap Thrills we get four of them, with each actor hitting decidedly different notes. As our lead, Pat Healy gives us an Average Joe desperate to earn some dough. Ethan Embry is a high school dude-bro who has more to him than initially appears. David Koechner has transformed into a good actor over the last few years. And Sara Paxton is the silent seductress, seemingly always in control even without speaking a word.
Cheap Thrills is a definite success. It’s a dark comedic thriller, one in which you watch people embarrass and injure themselves in order to entertain both some of its characters as well as the audience. It’s wickedly funny, incredibly entertaining, wonderfully paced, and gives you far more food for thought than you’d expect from something that, on the surface, sounds like exploitation garbage. The performances are great, and there’s a lot of intelligence to the screenplay. If the premise doesn’t put you off, this is a movie you should see.