Years ago, while i worked at Blockbuster, I remember seeing a series of pilots for game shows that never came to fruition. In general, these game shows promised money for depraved behavior, like offering a man on the street $100 for drinking a bottle of ipecac, watching him retch uncomfortably for a few minutes, then offering another $200 to lick the results of the heaving from the sidewalk.
This was supposed to be funny, of course, but more than anything it was just sad. It’s always been baffling what people are willing to do for seemingly inconsequential amounts of money. However, desperation and greed are powerful motivators. These themes are on full display in “Cheap Thrills,” an official Chattanooga Film Festival selection and audience favorite where two men are pitted against each other for the amusement of couple belonging to the ranks of the bored upper class.
The film is dark and uncomfortable, a comedy by only the broadest of definitions, but better than one might expect. While the bad-to-worse plotting of the film might cause flashbacks to scenes found in “Very Bad Things,” “Cheap Thrills” is a very different movie, one with strong characters in a far-fetched situation. In the film, Craig (Pat Healy) is a family man with a new baby. He is facing eviction from his apartment and his boss has just laid him off.
Craig wanders into a bar to drown his sorrows and encounters an old friend (a nearly unrecognizable Ethan Embry). The pair reminisce and draw the attention of a couple sitting in the corner of the room. Colin (David Koechner) and his bored-but-beautiful wife Audrey (Amanda Fuller) are out celebrating a birthday. What follows is a series of escalating dares, each worth arbitrary amounts of money, which become more and more sinister as the night rolls on.
The film is not especially subtle in its development of its themes. The callous and detached amusement of the super wealthy vs. the eroding moral consciousness of the under classes is well-worn ground, explored everywhere from “The Great Gatsby” to the “The Wolf of Wall Street”. “Cheap Thrills” is as much an exaggeration as those films, just one with a darker tone and harder edge. At times the film is hard to watch, and the experience of hearing an audience cackle at the revolting and horrifying situations that unfold onscreen can be jarring. But it’s well done, and has definite cult film potential. “Cheap Thrills” is absolutely a film for genre film fans, although by those standards it might be considered a bit tame.
The film would not be as successful were it not for the performances of the cast. Both Healy and Embry commit to their performances, creating relatable people essential to the storytelling. Koechner is more reserved as the master of ceremonies, affable, with the undercurrent of condescension necessary for that type of person. The result is a movie that entertains and engages, despite the natural revulsion we might feel at the subject matter.
As mentioned, “Cheap Thrills” was just one of the excellent selections in the Chattanooga Film Festivall. For a first-year festival, the event was an undeniable success and a huge leap forward for film fans in the Scenic City. Of the films I saw (around 10 out of the available 28), none were in any way low quality, although many were strange and complex. Several of them need repeat viewings for full understanding. Some are unlikely ever to make complete sense. Quite a few of the films are at the beginning of their theatrical release, meaning if you didn’t see them at the festival, you are unlikely to see them in Chattanooga again.
While things return to normal in the film world, and we all wait patiently for the opening of the Scenic, Chattanooga’s first art house theater, “Cheap Thrills” is one festival film that anyone can, and should, enjoy in the comfort of their own home. You won’t have the pleasure of a Q & A with star Pat Healy, but the film is available right now on iTunes and ripe for discussion afterwards. For those so inclined, it is essential that you watch the film with friends. Have a party and revel in the uncomfortable debauchery on screen. Other people make the movie more enjoyable. We can’t be islands all the time.