Set in 1990, Rent-A-Pal follows a lonely, basement-dwelling bachelor, David (Brian Landis Folkins), on his quest for connection. Dreary David is stuck working 24/7 as a caregiver for his demanding, Alzheimers-afflicted mother (Kathleen Brady), which means he has no friends and certainly no love life. While hoping to meet a single lady through a video-dating service, he discovers an intriguing VHS tape called “Rent-A-Pal” and takes it home for a watch. The charming and charismatic host, Andy (Wil Wheaton), offers much-needed company and compassion.
The interactions between David and Andy are as lively as they can be, considering Andy’s questions and reactions are prerecorded, and he’s speaking from an old tube TV. Sometimes David changes his responses, which, in turn, changes Andy’s canned answers into something else entirely. It’s an intriguing premise, and while Andy does turn sinister, I would have liked more of that—a supernatural twist would have been welcome.
The acting is excellent, and the two male leads are well-cast. They play off each other well, which couldn’t have been easy, given the nature of their interactions. David is the ultimate “40-year-old virgin,” and Andy is a peppy preppy, complete with the tie, sweater-vest, and neatly-trimmed salon beard. The females in the story, David’s mom and his love-interest Lisa (Amy Rutledge), are both outstanding actors, but their characters are one-dimensional. Come to the think of it, all of the characters are.
I did appreciate the attention to detail in Rent-A-Pal, though—everything from the sets to the costumes to the dialogue is oh-so-90s. Anyone who lived through that era will appreciate the nuances, particularly in the beige home décor and loud, oversized clothing. Even the cinematography fits, giving off a flat shot-on-videotape look. Given how static the situation is, the filmmakers did a good job of keeping the visuals alive with insert shots and forced perspectives.
I liked Rent-A-Pal at first, but once it hit the halfway mark, it started to drag. While the film has some possibly supernatural elements, it is more of a deadly dark comedy. Actually, hold the comedy—when it all shakes out, the movie is decidedly unfunny and quite depressing. Since I don’t like spoilers, all I can say is, the horrible conclusion negated my enjoyment of the rest of Rent-A-Pal. It was an unnecessary gut-punch.