A lonely bachelor is about to learn that friendship is full of surprises in Rent-A-Pal, which arrives in theaters and On Demand as of Friday, September 11, 2020, thanks to IFC Midnight and Pretty People Pictures.
Written, directed and edited by Jon Stevenson, Rent-A-Pal marks the directorial debut of the talented cinematographer who was previously known for 2011’s Incubator and 2014’s Eat. The film stars Brian Landis Folkins (The Creep Behind the Camera documentary 2014, Hoax 2019) as David, a 40-year-old caregiver. A single man who has placed his life on hold to support his ailing mother (Kathleen Brady: Breaking Bad series), who suffers from dementia and needs round-the-clock care, there’s a sense of social isolation and longing inherent in his position.
So he seeks out a local video-dating service in hopes of connecting with Miss Right. But what he could never have predicted is that, one fateful day in the offices of Video Rendezvous, he would encounter “Rent A Pal,” a video that leads to the start of his friendship with the charismatic Andy (Wil Wheaton: Stand by Me 1986, Star Trek: The Next Generation series).
As he gains the confidence to start to live again, the light returns to David’s eyes—much in thanks to the kind-hearted and adorable Lisa (Amy Rutledge: Neighbor 2009, Eyes of the Dead 2015). But someone in his life develops some serious jealousy issues, and David will be forced to ask himself if he can afford to pay the price for his newfound ‘social’ life.
The idea of a video-dating service is far from fiction, a fact that is easily reinforced by Rent-A-Pal’s 1990 setting. Emphasizing the inner-workings of VHS tapes, along with displaying wooden console televisions and top-loading VCRs, the film sets a clear reference point and it’s one that is apt to appeal to children of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Any youngsters who encounter the film are apt to miss the correlations between a modern day Tinder swipe and fast-forwarding past a boring dating profile. But these ideas are there, and Rent-A-Pal actually has some intriguing notions about then vs. now and losing yourself in, well, anything.
The problem with the film is that, at a lengthy 108 minutes, it feels rather indecisive about what Stevenson wants to emphasize, so far as his story goes and what his viewers take away from their experience. That said, while one might best categorize this cross-genre offering as a Dramatic Thriller, the thrilling elements and blood splatter do not come into play until the second half of the very last act. Up until that point, there is a serious lack of tension-building, creating a story that is sadly comedic at times as it details a socially awkward man who has placed the needs of everyone else ahead of his own.
To say that David is a flat character would be unfair, as the nature of his present situation has been fairly well-developed and lends viewers toward great apathy. However, we are utterly left in the dark as to the bulk of his past. His father, a Jazz pianist, passed away a decade previous, and that’s when his son stepped into the role of caring for mom. But where was David before this? Surely at 30 years old he had some friends and had experienced something of life. Instead of providing any hints of the man he was then, we are merely given a detailed assessment of what he has become; resentful of being placed into the position of caregiver, he is depressed, frustrated, lonely, and more than a little high-strung.
Depicting all of this, Folkins portrays a character who is generally soft-spoken and caring, though a thick layer of bitterness and detachment occasionally swims toward the surface. Clearly his David is exhausted from caring for his mother, a woman who loves to fling f-bombs and randomly provide TMI. Although Folkins sometimes wavers in his depiction of David’s devolving mental state—and is not quite as convincing as a man experiencing a psychotic fracture—he anchors the entire film with his ease in presenting a complicated but likable character who is wholly real. In this, Folkins makes the case for Rent-A-Pal being, first and foremost, the tale of an ordinary man who gives until he breaks.
As the charismatic face on the TV, Wheaton (say that in a Stewie Griffin voice) gives an exemplary performance as the ‘Guy Next Door’ in a sweater-vest. It cannot be easy to deliver a memorable portrayal from a vintage armchair with no co-stars in sight, simply delivering lines like the Mr. Rogers for awkward outcasts. But Wheaton succeeds at being unsettling without ever actually doing anything untoward—that is, save for that ear-splitting cackling. In short, if you were to decide to turn on a video to find a friend, Wheaton’s jovial voice and magnetic delivery make the oddity of the entire enterprise (see what we did there?) somehow believable. (Word of advice: if Wheaton asks you to join his cult, back away slowly and just say no.)
With all of this said, Rent-A-Pal has its ups and downs. Definitely geared more toward viewers in their 30s and 40s who can appreciate its juxtaposition of how our so-called modern ‘progress’ is merely an echo of vintage technology, this is a film that relies heavily on its late ‘80s/early ‘90s feels.
Case in point, the enjoyable score from Jimmy Weber (Dead Line II: Wrong Number short 2007, Eat 2014) goes big on Moog to set exactly this mood. Coupled with excellent acting from the entire cast, Rent-A-Pal is enjoyable if unable to reach its fullest potential. Still a solid first offering from Writer-Director Stevenson, we look forward to seeing what the talented filmmaker delivers next. But for now, Cryptic Rock gives Rent-A-Pal 3.5 of 5 stars.