Anyone who enjoyed “The Wolf of Wall Street” will probably get a kick out of “Cheap Thrills,” the new black comedy from director E.L. Katz. Like “Wolf,” “Cheap Thrills” is fixated on the evil men are willing to do for money and, like “Wolf,” the film revels in showing the audience that action. There’s also cocaine. Lots of cocaine. But the biggest likeness between the two films is the absence of any real depth. “Thrills” is a pastiche of meaningless violence and greed masquerading as a message about desperation and human nature.
“Thrills” follows Craig (Pat Healy), a husband and new father who needs $4,500 to avoid eviction. Though he aspires to be a writer, Craig has instead been working as a mechanic, but gets laid off. He heads to a bar after being fired and runs into Vince, a friend from high school (Ethan Embry). After a few drinks, they’re approached by loud, brash Colin (David Koechner) and his near-silent wife, Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin loves to throw his money around, offering the two friends $200 to get slapped or $500 to start a fight. What follows is a bizarre series of escalating dares through which Craig hopes to earn enough money to resuscitate his life.
Healy is an unconventional leading man, but he performs admirably, doing his best to sell Craig’s emotional responses to the increasingly ridiculous scenarios. He ably shows the gears turning as his character contemplates just how far he’s willing to go. Embry has a manic quality that serves Vince well, but as the movie goes on, his performance becomes more and more one-note. Koechner is the biggest surprise, mixing his trademark madcap energy with a chillingly effective darkness, and Sara Paxton does January Jones better than Jones herself ever has, consistently exuding icy detachment and control.
But these capable actors don’t save “Cheap Thrills” from being what it is: a celebration of white straight males and their masculinity. This is a total bro movie from start to finish. I can easily picture groups of guys watching this with the same reactions they would have to any entry in the “Jackass” series. “Thrills” doesn’t seem to know what it is. It’s being marketed as a black comedy, but it’s never funny. Its narrative is framed to make it seem like it’s making a statement, but any possible depth is lost amid a torrent of hypermasculine violence and a screenplay that ranges from adequate to awful. The characters are barely sketched out, and the last twenty minutes are full of ham-fisted attempts to make them seem like real people rather than vehicles for idiotic stunts, which they are.
Despite what its final scene attempts to suggest, “Cheap Thrills” does no actual exploring of what people will sink to for money. It just shows a series of depraved acts and attempts to tie them together with a failed metaphorical bow. Anyone interested in watching a black comedy about what money does to people would be better served by watching “Fargo,” or even “Trading Places.” “Cheap Thrills” feels exactly like what its title suggests: a collection of motiveless scenes of increasing ridiculousness and a movie that evaporates from the mind as soon as it’s over. People do bad things for money. So what? This territory’s been covered before, and much better.