Movie Review: Rent-a-Pal
By Matthew Huntley
September 20, 2020
“Rent-A-Pal” tells the familiar story of a sad, lonely, lovelorn man in his 40s who just can’t catch a break when it comes to romance. David (Brian Landis Folkins) sits alone in the dark and plays through the latest set of VHS tapes he’s picked up from a video dating service to see if any of the women on the other end would be a good match. “I’m looking for someone who will be there for me no matter what,” one promising candidate says. “Oh, and he can’t live in parents’ basement.”
Click. David turns the TV off. Cut to a wide shot of him sitting in his mother’s basement.
This setup isn’t exactly original. There have been countless movies from across several decades and genres that have centered on the perpetually single, socially awkward, middle-aged man: “Marty”; “The Apartment”; “Throw Momma From the Train”; “Swingers.” And while many of them begin as comedies that sooner or later turn romantic once the hero meets a compatible partner and gains self-confidence, “Rent-A-Pal” remains darker and more cynical . Even though it takes place in 1990 and gets us to think fondly back on old-school technologies such as VCRs, VHS tapes, and touch-tone vs. rotary phones, it’s anything but humorous or romantic.
David, who’s semi-overweight, wears glasses, and has the thankless job of caring for and tolerating his dementia-stricken mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), is someone we pity more than we like. We don’t necessarily cheer for this pathetic individual as much as feel sorry for him. He doesn’t have a job to keep him occupied (he and his mother get by on her social security checks) and he spends most of his day repeatedly cleaning and maintaining their dingy, dusty house. And David isn’t likely to land a date anytime soon—Diane (Adrian Egolf), the bubbly receptionist from Video Rendezvous, the dating service he uses, tells him there haven’t’ been any requests from women to connect with him.
What’s a guy like David to do? That’s when he spots “Rent-A-Pal,” a sort of self-help video buried deep in the bargain bin. What could it hurt? After all, if he can’t get himself a real girlfriend, he might as well make a virtual friend. David plays the tape and meets Andy, played by Wil Wheaton, who’s boyish, round-faced and bearded the way only Wil Wheaton can be. He sits alone in a green reading chair in front of a bare white wall and dons a loud sweater vest and red necktie — an obvious nod to Mr. Rogers — and almost immediately “cuts to the chase” by proclaiming, “I’m here to be your friend!”
At first, David doesn’t give his new analog friend much thought, but as the days of not hearing from women turn into weeks, he gradually finds himself playing “Rent-A-Pal” over and over again, always from the beginning. He talks out loud to Andy and, evidently, Andy talks back to David. Without giving away too many details, their exchanges range from light and harmless to sad and serious to sordid and creepy. All the while, we’re supposed to wonder whether Andy is somehow supernaturally alive on the tape and in the TV, and actually talking to David in real time, or if he’s just a figment of David’s psychosis. To his credit, writer-director Jon Stevenson doesn’t settle on any definitive answer, which keeps us guessing how this twisted tale will transpire.
The plot thickens with the introduction of Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a kind-hearted caretaker and fellow subscriber to Video Rendezvous who wants to meet David. They go on a pleasant date and I was actually surprised and impressed by the way Stevenson wrote Lisa to be real, compassionate and understanding toward David’s situation, even though she’s not privy to his compulsive relationship with Andy. Because the movie is essentially a psychological thriller, if not a horror movie, we assume Lisa only exists to witness David devolve into madness and probably become a victim of some sort. But Lisa actually has a part to play and her sincerity, as played by Rutledge, made me think “Rent-A-Pal” might not go down the predictable path I thought it would.
Where it does go, I’ll not entirely reveal, but unfortunately Stevenson succumbs to hackneyed sensationalism and gore as means to release the story’s built-up tension instead of exploring it with meaningful dialogue, further character development and a more original explanation of the phenomena that takes place. The last act of the movie is actually its least effective because instead of keeping us engaged with intelligence and ambiguity, it settles on just another one of those fight-to-the-death moments we’ve seen time and again, and the result has little to no impact on us mentally or viscerally.
This is a shame, too, because “Rent-A-Pal” showed promise to be a chilling, disturbing thriller. The performances are raw and genuine; the atmosphere is dark and repelling (as it should be); and Stevenson generates a disquieting feeling throughout that makes us anxious and puts on edge. If he had maintained the story’s initial integrity by steering it toward an outcome that was governed by credibility instead of the artificial rules of the horror-thriller genre, “Rent-A-Pal” could have really amounted to something.
In fact, because there seemed to be so much left to learn about David, his past, and how a tortured soul like him might actually reconcile an unhealthy obsession with a man on a videotape, I wonder if “Rent-A-Pal” would have made for a better series than a standalone feature, perhaps a mini-series. The underlying premise makes us believe it could have grown into something uniquely intriguing and effective, but as it is now, it’s merely a mediocre genre picture that chooses a standard conclusion rather than taking greater risks and possibly (and probably) leaving a more lasting impression.