Cheap Thrills review: in debasement

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Cheap Thrills red light

The movie equivalent of a mean girls’ game whose only goal is the humiliation of its protagonist, for your entertainment. Also: a failed parable of the twistedness of the 1 percent.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

So I was at this party one time in high school, and a bunch of mean girls thought they could trick me into embarrassing myself. The game was: I put a blanket over my head, and then I had to hand them stuff that was on my person until I hit on the one secret item that they had it in their heads that they wanted me to give them. I can’t remember what the first thing I gave them was — something innocuous, like my watch or a shoe, neither of which was the secret thing, of course. I knew that the key to the game was embarrassment, so the next thing I handed them was my bra… pulled off from under my shirt, so I was still all covered up. That wasn’t what they wanted, either. So then I had it: The secret thing was the blanket, which I pulled off and gave them. I guess most victims were naked, or close to it, by the time they figured that out… or by the time the blanket was the only item left. The disappointment of the mean girls was palpable. I suppose I should be glad that they actually gave me back my bra.

I tell this story not to show off how smart I am, but so that I can say: Cheap Thrills is the movie equivalent of the mean girls’ game. Wherever hopes you might hold that it will find some high ground or have something even moderately insightful to say or even just bother to be clever, forget them now. This is a movie whose only goal is the humiliation of its protagonist, for your entertainment. (Um, yeah: You are the mean girls in this equation.) Lots of movies aim for such a goal, which gives me a sad on a regular basis. But Cheap Thrills is also a parable of us 99 percent peons at the mercy of the 1 percent, and as such it additionally fails by omitting to engage the 1 percent in bloody revolution culminating in their beheading by guillotine.

It’s entirely possible that screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga and first-time director E.L. Katz don’t appreciate that their little torture-porn flick works on that metaphoric level…

Anyway, Craig (Pat Healy: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ghost World) is in trouble. There was an eviction notice on his apartment door this morning, and not only did he not get around to asking for that raise he’s been meaning to ask about — and which his wife, Caryn (Laura Covelli) reminded him to do as he was heading out to work — but instead he’s just gotten laid off. While drowning his troubles at a local drinking establishment, he runs into an old friend from high school, Vince (Ethan Embry: Eagle Eye, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), whom he hasn’t seen in years. And Vince, whom we gather is a bit of a violent loser, gets them mixed up with Colin (David Koechner: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Piranha 3DD) and his wife, Violet (Sara Paxton: The Last House on the Left).

Now, just a few minutes earlier, Vince had been lamenting to Craig the unfairness that he will never be able to snag a woman like Violet — young, thin, blonde, and “hot” — because he doesn’t have an expensive sportscar and lots of money. Because that’s all women care about, see. And sure enough, now we learn that probably the reason that Colin — a quarter of a century older than her, if we go by the actors’ actual ages — has snagged her is because he throws around hundred-dollar bills like they’re Kleenex. We never learn where Colin’s money comes from, not even as he buys $300 bottles of booze and starts making ridiculous bets with Craig and Vince, such as: he’ll give absurd-X bucks to whoever gets that woman over there at the bar to slap him. Colin is filthy, stinking rich, just because some people are, and that’s just the way it is. Even some nasty people are filthy, stinking rich. Maybe especially some nasty people.

We also soon discover that Colin and Violet are psychopaths; at least they do have something in common. As the evening continues and the bets escalate — eventually past the point at which the script thinks Craig and Vince can back out, although they really could leave at any point — there are a few moments that are all “No, we don’t want the bra, silly. We’re not like that.” But those girls were exactly like that, and so is Cheap Thrills.

The only way for Craig and Vince to win these bets — which start to get messy, gory, and debasing — is to walk away. But all that money! Craig is offered the precise amount he needs to get his rent out of arrears to do something he’d really rather not do, and of course he does it. Because he is desperate and sees no other option, and the people with the money are sick, twisted fucks.

Like I said, a metaphor for the world today. But to what end? We already know this. And plenty of us already debase ourselves in order to pay the rent. And…?

If this is a horror movie — and there’s an argument to be made that it is — it’s not scary, though it is frequently plenty disgusting. If it’s a black comedy — and there’s an argument to be made that it is — it’s not funny. So what the hell is it?

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Thu, Apr 03, 2014 7:10pm

There could have been a good film in this. Let’s face it, “how far will the protagonist go to protect his/her life/family/etc.” is the core of a lot of good stories. But that’s when he/she gets to fight the enemy, not just decide how much moral corruption is enough.

In a film made fifty years ago Colin and Violet would have been the Devil, and maybe that could have worked, because going head-on against the Devil is obviously stupid; he’s a narrative device, and you just have to try to survive the game. But if you get away from the metaphoric struggles and root them in the real world, somehow it all falls apart and just turns tawdry.

Hard Little Machine
Hard Little Machine
Sun, Feb 18, 2018 7:14pm

If this were a foreign film it would be banned in the US. It’s that fucked up.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Hard Little Machine
Mon, Feb 19, 2018 10:31pm

What do you mean?

Hard Little Machine
Hard Little Machine
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Feb 19, 2018 11:37pm

I get the distinct sense that if this were a foreign film It would called Gore Porn, like ‘Martyrs’. It’s way way out there.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Hard Little Machine
Tue, Feb 20, 2018 10:41am

When was the last time a foreign film — or any film — was banned in the United States? You said that like it’s a common occurrence.