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Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 25. I know you can't wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I'll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number ten on my list is E.L. Katz's Cheap Thrills.
Cheap Thrills isn't a midnight movie, strictly speaking—when it played at Music Box in April, why, you could catch a weekend show right after lunch. But this cagey black comedy harks back to the 70s heyday of the midnight movie, when fly-by-night geniuses like George A. Romero and John Waters combined trashy pleasures with genuinely subversive intent. Cheap Thrills poses a simple question—how much will a person degrade himself to make ends meet?—but it's a potent one for those of us who ponder it every Monday through Friday. Craig (Pat Healy), the flat-footed everyman at the center of the story, wants nothing more from life than a few more minutes in bed with his wife after the alarm clock rings and a few more minutes at play with his son before he heads off to work. But like so many other Americans, Craig is only a paycheck away from disaster; that morning he receives an eviction notice, and that evening his boss informs him that he's being laid off. Unless he can get his hands on $4,500 in a week, he and his family will be out on the street.
If I compiled a list of every movie about someone with a dire money problem, it would run into the thousands. In dramas, the imperative usually leads to crime; in comedies, it leads to some outlandish get-rich-quick scheme. But screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, to their credit, keep it simple, along the lines of selling one's blood but on a much larger scale. Craig, drowning his sorrows at a tavern, runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old high school pal, who's living pretty close to the edge himself. By chance they cross paths with Colin (the ubiquitous David Koechner), a wealthy good-time Charlie, and Violet (Sarah Paxton), his young, beautiful, supremely bored wife. Colin is the sort of guy who likes to throw money around; he gives the barmaid 300 bucks so she'll look the other way while they snort coke at their table. His purchase of Craig and Vince starts out small—$50 to whoever can down a shot first, $200 to whoever inspires a woman at the bar to slap him in the face—but once they've repaired to Colin and Violet's swank pad, the dares grow increasingly more lewd, gross, and dangerous.
A low-budget indie like this hardly requires a literary pedigree, but as night leads into morning, Cheap Thrills kept reminding me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with George and Martha's ongoing game of "Get the Guests" replaced by a rapidly escalating contest between Craig and Vince. Colin offers Craig $200 to hang up on his worried wife when she phones him, $800 to break into a next-door neighbor's house and shit on the floor, $4,500 to have sex with Violet, and $23,000 to chop off his pinkie finger. This is too much for Vince, who offers to cut off his own finger for less, and soon the two friends are bidding each other down for the privilege of mutilating themselves. Cheap Thrills may be pitched as a comedy, but in reality it's a lesson in raw capitalism, with Colin as one of the new oligarchs who run this country and Craig and Vince as the rest of us unlucky bastards. The bitter joke of the title is that, for Colin, these dehumanizing laughs are a genuine bargain.