RENT-A-PAL Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad


Tony wants to be your friend.

Rent-A-Pal is a 2020 movie that goes out of its way to be retro. In a world that’s already seen The Ring and all its variants, Rent-A-Pal has to be a retro movie, depending as it does on VCRs and VHS tapes for its operation. Could it work in the modern, streaming world? Sure. But there’s something about the late-80s, early-90s vibe of tape that makes the movie work – and it’s more than one crucial scene in which a character cuts up the tape inside a VCR.

What’s the premise?

Ultimately, it’s a study in loneliness, obsession, and what a man trapped in lonely routines of unmitigated awfulness will crave, and what he will do to break out of those routines.

David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a middle-aged man, living in his mother’s basement. He’s living there because his mother has dementia, and only fleetingly remembers who he is, more often confusing him with his father. His father who was a creatively fulfilled jazz musician, who seems to have had a history of affairs, and who nevertheless killed himself ten years previously. David’s mother used to beat the living daylights out of him as a child, and has lost very little of her tender impulses as he’s grown into a chubby, awkward man, uncertain how to act around women.

Oh yeah, strap in, it’s a barrel of human-driven laughs, this horror movie written and directed by Jon Stevenson.

David has taken to video dating to at least crack open a window in the gloom of his life, to allow in a potential beam of light that can rescue him from a life of squalor in the basement. But no-one has taken a chance on him yet. He goes to the agency to record a new, hopefully more appealing video…and stumbles across something a little different.

He stumbles across Andy.

Andy is the star of a video called Rent-A-Pal. Not Rent-A-Romance, but Rent-A-Pal. It’s worth remembering that.

Rent-A-Pal is exactly what it sounds like – a video of a chubby, middle-aged guy in a non-threatening sweater, who promises to be your pal. To listen to you talk about whatever you need to get off your chest, who leaves spaces for you to say the things you can’t say to anyone else. Who plays games. Who shares his own secrets. His own jokes. His own embarrassing stories.

That’s Andy.

That’s Will Wheaton, in a role that helps at least partially redefine him and his range for a mid-career slapback to those who think he may have swapped full-on acting for playing ‘himself’ in shows and at cons. The actor who once anchored the wonderfest that was Stand By Me and who made us hate boy geniuses forever in Star Trek: The Next Generation can still rock an audience with his performances.

Rent-A-Pal, the video, has a little of everything for lonely people. For lonely men, in particular. And while he begins watching with a cynical disregard, Dave eventually buys into the idea, and regards his time with Andy as an actual friendship.

When the video dating service finally matches him with somebody perfect – Lisa, played by Amy Rutledge – at first, things go well, with Dave breaking free of his nervousness in her comforting and nurturing presence. In fact, if there’s a real weakness, it’s how suspiciously perfect the two are for each other, so quickly. It almost leads you to wonder whether Lisa’s not actually a figment of Dave’s imagination, especially as the biggest kink in the road of them getting to meet also feels like it’s heavily ‘written,’ rather than naturally derived. But the two get along well, prompting at least the showing to us of a section of the Rent-A-Pal video we’ve not seen before. The passive aggressive, gaslighting section, demanding loyalty to the friendship between Dave and Andy above and beyond any potential romantic connection between Dave and Lisa.

It’s here, more than anywhere, that we start questioning the narrative. Andy is such a perfectly typical male pal – ridiculing Dave’s most embarrassing and scarring stories, playing along with Dave’s need for sexual release, to the point of the first moment of reality-blurring when Andy calls Dave by his name. It all begins to feel like what we’re seeing is not a simple tale of “ageing lonely man seeks solace in video pal.”

It begins in fact to feel like Andy might just be an imagination-figure, the expression of Dave’s increasingly toxic masculinity. Compressed by loneliness, robbed of connection to the women he craves by an early romantic trauma, and egged on to think of women as liars and whores by the stories Andy tells, Dave begins to release the negativity long stored inside him, and the Rent-A-Pal video begins to feel like an invention from whole cloth.

It’s not that, though. It’s definitively not that – Lisa sees Andy on screen when she steps down into Dave’s basement for a moment of unlikely and yet seemingly inevitable romance. When Dave seems to lose Andy’s friendship and storms to the video store to demand another copy of Rent-A-Pal, he’s provided with one – exactly the same as the first.

And that’s really the crux of the thing – the Rent-A-Pal video feels like a meeting of reality and imagination that takes us deeply into the loneliness, the buttoned-down despair of Dave, so that we ultimately believe there’s nothing inherently ‘evil’ about the Rent-A-Pal video. Instead, it seems to provide the kind of male companionship Dave craves as much or more as the female companionship Lisa represents.

Rent-A-Pal becomes cleverer than you think it’s going to be, while its beats remain reasonably pedestrian. The ideas of ‘Bros before hoes’ of ‘Pals before gals’ are toxic notions that depends on the acceptance of two premises – that male friendships are inviolable and positive, and that any relationship between men and women puts women in a position of domineering power through the granting or withholding of sex. As Rent-A-Pal goes on, it forces the examination of those premises, but just when you think it might be going somewhere with them, it goes click.

It snaps into place in a way you begin to realise it was always going to. The exposure to Andy’s toxic notions of male self-respect lead the lonely, beaten-down, robbed-of-life Dave into a dark place that has grown inside him, and ultimately a place from which he can’t be rescued, either by the mother he cares for or the woman who might have shown him a way out of the dark.

What you end up with at the climax of Rent-A-Pal is a sort of ‘burn-it-all-to-the-ground’ conclusion that justifies it being thought of as a horror film. But much like Psycho was a horror film of humanity curtailed, sexuality stunted and a personality warped out of all proportion, so Rent-A-Pal is a horror movie of humanity, of experiences buried, of a life bent out of shape by the inevitability of caring and the cruelty of the young against the young. It’s a movie that’s only a handful of heartbeats removed from the reality of some infamous serial killers (again, like Psycho), but whether you’ll actually enjoy it is far less certain.

The performances, it’s true, are stellar on every level. Brian Landis Folkins is spot on all the way along as Dave. Amy Rutledge, despite not being given a great deal to play with by the script, still injects reality and a sense of offered ‘normality’ into Lisa. Will Wheaton as Andy is possibly as good as you’ve ever seen him, and certainly better than you’ve seen him in a solid handful of decades. And Kathleen Brady as Dave mother is so effective an actress you believe you can smell any room she’s in.

There’s good work in terms of the things the movie seems to want to discuss too – Andy as the merging of an innocent video and Dave’s repressed personality, the whole dichotomy of heterosexual power dynamics and how they’re framed, and the notion that perhaps every man has an Inner Incel somewhere deep down inside them that’s encouraged out in groups of other men. See Fight Club and a hundred other movies for the same themes of repressed masculinity exploding into violence.

But some of the storytelling is plodding, and some is almost grossly convenient. The result is that you’re left willing to go some way into the melted reality-psyche of Dave’s decomposing sense of self – but not perhaps quite as far as the movie demands.

You’ll remember Rent-A-Pal for a while after you watch it. You’ll feel oddly grubby by the time it ends. But whether that’s because it sets out to make you almost complicit in the destruction it ultimately unleashes on the screen, or whether it’s because you see everything coming a little too far ahead because there’s no other way it can go, is less certain.

If nothing else, watch Rent-A-Pal for the performances. They will blow the top of your head off and, particularly in Wheaton’s case, they will make you itchy with unease. That, matched with the almost flintlock, mechanical precision with which the ending unrolls at you, make it memorable. Though with a touch more run-time or slightly more realistic scripting, the relationship between Dave and Lisa could have been allowed more of a chance before the movie’s inevitable end.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad