Synopsis: Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister.
Stars: Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand, Toby Huss
Director: Dave Franco
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: I love to travel but I’m kinda weird about it. Here’s the thing, when I go on vacation I want to feel like I’m away from home and want the place I stay to feel special and not like…well, my home. That’s why I’ve always found the Airbnb craze to be a little whack-a-doo because who would want to stay in a person’s house (or even a place someone else decorated or, shudder, put their bare feet on the pillows?) when you could get pampered at a hotel for sometimes half the cost? I know that for large parties it may work out better but there’s just something a little creepy to me about the entire set-up. After watching The Rental, I’m even more convinced I’m right to be worried.
The first feature film directed by Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), The Rental could have easily gone in another direction that was more cliché and expected and that would have been a gigantic and exasperating disappointment. Thankfully, Dave seems to have learned from the strange misfires his older brother James made as both a director and star and kept his debut tight. He also wisely hasn’t made it more difficult on himself by starring in the film as well but instead remains behind the camera as director and co-writer with indie favorite Joe Swanberg (You’re Next) who knows his way around these types of slow-dread genre films. The result should have audiences ready to check-in and hunker down for a corker of a chiller.
Excited for a weekend away from their busy city lives, Charlie (Dan Stevens, Lucy in the Sky), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie, The Five-Year Engagement), his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Viena and the Fantomes) and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) book a beach house in the woods that’s just secluded enough to help them unwind and party without disruption. Things get off to a jittery start when Mina, who is Middle Eastern, requests to book the house and is denied but Charlie, who is white, is accepted immediately. Arriving to find the owner (Toby Huss, Halloween) affable at first but vague when questioned about the perceived racism in the booking snafu, the foursome shake off any lingering bad feelings and try to enjoy their first night at the spacious house.
The calm doesn’t last long though as a night of partying leads to the first of a number of secrets that are eventually exposed, along with a danger that none of them could have ever predicted. Situations go from bad to worse when a split-second decision changes the course of their weekend plans from a fun retreat with family/friends to a downward spiral of mayhem. As miscommunication, distrust, fear, and anger start to take hold of the group, what starts as a weekend to relax quickly devolves into a surprisingly effective fight for survival stemming from a mystery they are racing to unravel. To reveal more would not be playing fair and Franco/Swanberg largely stick to realistic developments that rely on spur of the moment choices and their devastatingly quick consequences.
I was genuinely impressed with the acumen Franco shows for maneuvering his small troupe of actors around and the way he works with Swanberg to keep us on our toes throughout. The twists and turns presented in The Rental are often unpredictable and you’ll lose valuable time the more you try to figure out what’s happening or where the action will go next. Leaving little room for extra fat to weigh things down, the 80 or so minutes are free from the normal pitfalls of first time filmmaking, suggesting again that Franco has been paying attention when he’s been on sets these past years as an actor.
Frustrating though they all may be at times and not without blame for much of what happens during this weekend from hell, the characters are all appealing in some fashion. I’m usually not a fan of Brie (Franco’s real life wife) but she’s quite fun here and despite a slow start where her character is a bit more passive than we’re used to seeing from Brie she revs up and gets a few good zingers in during the second half. Every time Stevens pops up in a movie my partner notes that ever since he left Downton Abbey the actor seems totally averse to speaking in his native UK accent and here again he’s not wholly successful in showing off his elocution. Stevens hasn’t quite found his footing, post-Downton and while he’s been well-reviewed in a number of films he continues to come up lacking for me…but in The Rental that cool from a distance feel actually works for his often compromised pseudo-nice guy. As Charlie’s screw-up brother, White is fine in a role that gradually gets aggravating but it’s Vand’s commanding presence that is the real find here. Taking the role as serious as it needs to be, Vand handles some character developments and choices that could be poison with an unusual amount of grace, keeping us oddly on her side.
Franco has said the idea for The Rental came from his caution about staying in an Airbnb property and his trepidation shows with an end product that’s drenched in paranoia. Building to a sharp sting around the halfway mark before rising to a spine-tingling crescendo that’s sustained through the credits, The Rental is a four-star winner for the weary traveler wary of where they lay their head at night.