Synopsis: Lonely bachelor David discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy, the tape offers him much-needed company and compassion. However, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.
Stars: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge
Director: Jon Stevenson
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: In my mind, one of the more positive things to come out of 2020 is an interesting resurgence of 80s and 90s nostalgia that’s been brewing for some time. The reboots of television shows and films have been streaming in over the last several years and fashion trends have been steadily regressing back to the bold looks popularized two or three decades ago. It was truly in 2020 when I felt the pinnacle of the reminiscence to those older days happened with music industry titans The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Miley Cyrus all individually releasing albums with a distinct sound that screams of 80s synth and flavor. It’s wonderful and I for one have loved seeing how artists of today across all mediums have reinvented the cultural touchstones of the past.
I think that’s a reason why Rent-A-Pal has such appeal, at least initially, because it taps directly into the memory sweet spot of the audience that its playing directly to. This strange hybrid of horror/thriller/black comedy will by its very nature speak to a particular demographic and writer/director Jon Stevenson knows good and well how to snag their attention with the kind of retro calling cards that keep you visually interested even when the story begins to deflate as it careens toward a messy conclusion. For everyone else that happens upon the film, it’s surely a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ due to an insular feeling giving off an impression if you aren’t familiar with this era you’re missing out on the majority of the point.
It’s hard to imagine now, but before all the dating apps were available, video dating services helped make love connections across the country via recorded VHS interviews. Lonesome David is hoping 1990 is the year he’ll meet his mate, though living in his elderly mother’s basement isn’t helping things. Caring for his mom (Kathleen Brady) who suffers from dementia that leaves her brittle physically and emotionally, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is soft-spoken and the kind of guy you’d imagine would be fast-forwarded by women on the hunt for someone exciting. While picking up his latest batch of hopeful matches, David spots a clearance VHS called Rent-A-Pal and, on a whim, decides to try it out. Hosted by the effervescent Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape seems to ask the right questions at the right time, interacting with David on a level that few have. Andy wants to know an awful lot about David it turns out; his secrets, his most embarrassing moments, and much more all become topics of increasingly intense conversations. When David eventually makes a match with the sweet and shy Lisa (Amy Rutledge, strong and surprising in what could have been a disposable role), he finds that he doesn’t need his old pal Andy quite as much and stops playing the VHS. That’s when things get weird…and deadly.
For the most part, Rent-A-Pal is a fun examination of loneliness (yes, I know how that sounds) and Stevenson doesn’t pass up an opportunity to put David in awkward positions…sometimes literally. His interactions with the outside world are often wince-inducing and the way he begins to let what appears to be a pre-taped VHS order him around are amusing in a macabre sort of way. Folkins and Wheaton have a good rapport in these scenes, never letting the audience get too far ahead of things so they figure out what’s happening or putting the large puzzle pieces together. Wheaton’s role can seem a tad one-note but there’s more to what he’s doing than appears on the surface, the same can be said for Folkins who could have easily made David a Norman Bates-ish silent rage machine but instead lets what’s brewing rise to the kind of boil that explodes when you are least prepared.
The film’s biggest flaw is that Rent-A-Pal is an 80-minute movie living in the shell of a film that runs a half hour longer. That extra thirty minutes drags the film down in its most crucial moments, slowing things to a crawl right when the screws should be turning to amp up the pressure. It all leads somewhere, sure, and to its credit the film finds its way to a satisfying finale but the road leading up there is an oddly unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing trip, especially considering that up until then things were humming along nicely. Clearly made on a small budget, the production design can’t go full out with the retro design so the look of the movie feels like 1990 by way of a garage sale instead of a curated prop department, but extra points go back to everyone just for seeing oodles of VHS tapes on display.
Even putting the budget aside (because plenty of movies can still be worthwhile even if made for $2.95), with a few cuts, Rent-A-Pal would have been an overall tighter movie and the trims would have helped every other element that goes slack leading up to the home stretch. Wheaton’s character would have had more unnerving menace, Folkins wouldn’t have had to stretch out his descent into frenzy quite so long, and the poor women of the picture (both are quite good, especially Brady in a difficult to cast role) might not have had to wait for their turn to get something to do. Stevenson is absolutely someone to watch and so is the movie, but see if you can spot when you can FF.