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As Bob Zmuda tells it, screenwriter Norman Wexler used to tote a briefcase full of thousands of dollars to pay off the many people that he pissed off each day. Zmuda — the comedian, writer, tall-tale dispenser, and longtime wrangler of Andy Kaufman — dished his best Wexler story on Marc Maron's WTF podcast in 2012. Annoyed at the service in a bakery where he had tried to purchase a jelly doughnut, Wexler, the writer of Serpico and Saturday Night Fever, purportedly began tossing cash around to buy everything else in the joint: the pastries, then the ingredients, then the fixtures, and finally the clothes of the employees, to be doffed right then and there.
It's a hilarious, disgusting, disquieting yarn, one that, if you hear Zmuda tell it, will stick in your brain like gum in your hair. The best thing that can be said of E.L. Katz's grimly comic thumb-in-your-eye Cheap Thrills is that, in its long, roughhousing middle, it glances against that kind of mad-millionaire ridiculousness. A compelling Pat Healy stars as Craig, one of those movie schnooks who, in order to have his particular adventure, must lose everything in the first five minutes. We learn immediately that he's a failed writer, that he and the wife can't find time for each other, that he's facing eviction for back rent, that the wife expects him to ask his boss at the auto shop "about that raise." Guess what? That raise ain't coming.
But once things get tediously bad for him they get seriously good for the movie — for a while. Craig winds up at one of those grimy L.A. bars favored by screenwriters enamored of Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. There, he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), a prickly tough guy from his high school days, and, more promisingly, Colin (the stellar David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a well-heeled couple who order a $300 bottle of tequila and invite the boys to join them. Perverse Colin peels C-notes from his wallet and invites his new drinking buddies to win them by participating in nasty competitions: Be the first to drink this shot. Be the first to get that woman at the bar to slap your face. Be the first — once they're coked up and off to a second location — to slap that stripper in the ass.
It's male-desperation comedy touched with frathouse raunch, the ritualized humiliations of reality TV, and the peculiar nihilism of so many L.A.-set indie features. Director Katz stages the contests with great energy and persuasive style — he always knows just where to put the camera, just when to cut, and just when we're not expecting to be shocked. Better still, he keeps us guessing, much like Craig, who often tries to back out of the escalating nastiness. Is the money-flinging Colin a Rodney Dangerfield-in-Back to School type, the wealthy loon who flings money about to purchase impossible good times? Is he a Jigsaw the Clown, scheming to trap and torture the greedy and wicked? With Koechner's assured, magnetic, carefully slippery performance goes the film's very genre: It's a spoiler to reveal whether this is comedy or horror. Zmuda's story about Wexler shares that uncertainty, that feeling that maybe you should be weeping rather than laughing, as does a wretched 2000 Simpsons where Mr. Burns pulled the same shame-yourself-for-cash routine on Homer. (Homer is raped by a panda bear, a low for the series and our culture.)
Eventually, this unsavory foursome arrives at Colin and Violet's home. It boasts a spectacular view of Los Angeles from the hills, which is always movie shorthand for soullessness. The drama peaks early when Vince talks the gullible Craig into robbing the joint; Katz wrings the sequence for everything it's worth, letting us and Craig stew in the possibility that this crime might itself be a set-up, too, one more cruel prank. But as the stunts and stakes grow ever more unsettling, absurdly so, the movie becomes a grind, the characters going at each other again and again with diminishing results. The wife, generally written as a bored trophy, figures into a too-literal evocation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's Hump the Hostess; Colin announces a grudge against a neighbor's dog, and only someone who has never seen a movie before will be surprised that that comes into play later.
By the end, Cheap Thrills too closely resembles the behavior it depicts. It asks us to endure too much of the worst of humanity without illuminating it. Several times Katz shows us coiled turds on floors and pavement; these figure into one stunt and suggest an apt metaphor for what the film's final third feels like: a director shaming us, as the worst kind of dog-owner might, rubbing our faces in the mess that our kind can't help but make of things. For nearly an hour in the middle, this spiky spitball soars. If it's aimed at anything more specific than humanity itself, only its hurlers know. Of course people are awful. What else do you have to tell us?
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