Rent-a-Pal, the debut feature from writer-director-editor Jon Stevenson, is unrelentingly bleak, a 108-minute cringe-fest masquerading as a character study. Not that there is much to glean from the protagonist as presented here, a bespectacled sad sack named David (Brian Landis Folkins) desperate for human connection. The year is 1990, and as the film opens, David is seen viewing potential prospects from a pricey video-dating service, none of whom have shown the slightest interest. David is 40 and lives with his dementia-addled mother, putting his own life on hold to tend to hers — or perhaps using his current circumstance as an excuse to disengage from life entirely. Therein lies the film’s major problem: David is a loner, but he is indeed making some sort of effort. Rent-a-Pal willfully continues to forget this fact, going out of its way to present him as nothing more than a pathetic loser. David is the type of man who stumbles across the titular videotape — which features an unnervingly affable Wil Wheaton as a middle-aged man who promises to be your own personal VHS best friend — and almost immediately descends into obsession, rewinding the tape over and over to engage in disconcerting, unhealthy banter on an endless loop. It is obvious that Wheaton is nothing more than David’s fractured id, growing more sinister with each passing, monotonous day as David deals with his aging mother’s failing memory and inability to take care of herself. Discussion of David’s past reveals an unhappy childhood filled with abuse and bullying, so clearly the film wants to engender sympathy for our protagonist, and yet his actions at film’s end are so reprehensible that they seem to exist solely for shock value. That’s not to say that his actions are in any way surprising; Stevenson takes so much pleasure in wallowing in David’s awkwardness and misery that the viewer is simply left impatiently waiting for the other shoe to inevitably and thuddingly drop. Rent-a-Pal is pitched at the same tenor as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s storyline from Happiness, and indeed plays a lot like if Todd Solondz made the choice to build that entire film around his repellent loner, minus all of the offputting sex stuff. In other words, there’s nothing to be gained from the oppressing experience. Rent something else.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | September 2020.