David Koechner's recent performance as a wealthy sadist in the low-budget drama Cheap Thrills ranks among the more interesting screen performances this year. A veteran character actor best known for playing cartoon idiots (Anchorman: The Legend of Rob Burgundy, NBC's The Office), Koechner is surprisingly convincing as the film's mephistophelean villain, who coerces the hapless protagonists into performing a series of degrading stunts. Koechner's comedy background is evident in his boisterous line readings, which sound vaguely funny even when his character says awful things. Rather than diminish the movie's sinister tone, however, he enhances it, inspiring uneasy sympathy for a reprehensible character by making him the most charming presence onscreen.
I thought about Koechner's work in Cheap Thrills while watching Matt Walsh—another veteran comic actor, who made his name with the sketch troupe Upright Citizens Brigade—in the new disaster movie Into the Storm, largely because the film gave me little else to think about. A flimsy genre piece, Into the Storm combines the basic premise of Twister (1996)—storm chasers in pursuit of the perfect tornado—with the already threadbare cliches of the found-footage horror film. The characters are such automatons that one hardly cares when they're in peril, and most of the tornado imagery is so obviously digital that the perils themselves are unconvincing. (Computer graphic imagery is becoming the rich man's version of the rubber costumes from old drive-in monster movies.)
The bright-eyed Walsh brings a welcome sense of variety to a cast that seems to consist mainly of Hanes underwear models. Appropriately enough, Walsh's character is something of an outsider, a self-obsessed storm chaser who shows up in a middle-American small town so that he might document a level-five tornado that threatens the community. This might sound like a golden opportunity for a comic performer like Walsh, who could have transformed the role into a caricature of showbiz cynicism or, taking a cue from Koechner, used his comic skill to make the character a fascinating sociopath. Unfortunately the actor does neither. One suspects that the filmmakers, in their commitment to blandness, shut him down whenever he came up with some idiosyncratic response, lest he upstage the computer-animated cyclones that are the movie's primary reason for being. Either that, or Walsh saw how little he had to work with and realized which way the wind was blowing.