From the Archives: Rent-A-Pal wastes a promising premise

From the Archives: Rent-A-Pal wastes a promising premise

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

In a world where The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and David Cronenberg exist it’s tough for a film like Rent-A-Pal to find its footing in well-worn territory. Stuck somewhere between cultural commentary and cautionary sci-fi, this oddball thriller (Drama? Romance? Satire?) has a lot of high-quality elements. Assembled, however, the film feels incomplete. The story is definitely whole, the plot resolves, but I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to take away from it. There’s certainly something being said here, but I worry that the somewhat shallow conclusion betrays the intentions of the filmmaker. It’s not a weird enough movie to be a total head trip, but its overall tone is niche enough that we can give this flick the broad generalization of “genre”.

Set in the early ‘90s, Rent-A-Pal follows the meager life of David (Brian Landis Folkins), a schlubby, kind-hearted 40 year old man who lives at home with his sickly mother. Her social security is enough for the duo to get by, and David passes the time watching old movies with her and regularly reminding her that his name is David, not Frank. Needless to say, David is lonely. How lonely? Lonely enough to spend much of his expendable income on a video dating service. It’s not the ideal way to meet a partner, but it’s the best he can do. In an early scene we get a window into the video recording process. In it, David gives a charming, appropriately emotional and honest read for his tape. Unfortunately, he is advised that male applicants (of which there are many) aren’t afforded the luxury of a long, detailed tape. Female applicants (of which there are few) can go into much more detail, but David will have to give an abridged version of his bio. The abridged version naturally makes him seem like a desperate loser.


It’s a really exceptional sequence, evoking empathy for a character who is easy to dismiss. Folkins pulls some kind of magic here, dancing the line between being worthy of our disdain or of our pity. The scales tip toward pity on his way out of the studio, when he sheepishly hands over his MasterCard so he can take home a large stack of tapes, each with a potential date’s bio. Along with these tapes he also grabs one titled, you guessed it, “Rent-A-Pal.”

“Rent-A-Pal” is a self-help video in which its star, Andy (Wil Wheaton) engages in conversation with the viewer. No, not in a supernatural way, but in a way that banks on intuition.

“Tell me about your parents”



“Aren’t moms the best?”

David, being a man who lives entirely absent of validation, takes to the tape pretty quickly, forming a one-sided friendship with an entity who doesn’t really exist.


Once again we watch as the disdain/pity line begins to fade. On the one hand, David is engaging in an act of self-betterment — an act of self-love uncommon to his repressed existence. On the other, he’s receding into an imaginary world. A world that is threatened when he finally matches with a fellow video dater, Lisa (Amy Rutledge).

It’s frustrating because this is the perfect setup for a variety of different movies. There’s a horror movie to be made, a bizarre romantic comedy, or even a dark character study. Rent-A-Pal flits between all of these things, never fully committing to any one of them. As it progressed I kept getting the sense that the film was about to take an unexpected turn, or really drive home a big idea, but this never came to fruition. While important plot events do happen, some indeed of a shocking nature, none are motivated well-enough to be very compelling. As David descends into some concerning behaviors while balancing the relationships he has with his mother, Lisa, and his “Rent-A-Pal” tape, he undergoes some drastic personality changes that are difficult to buy. So drastic, even, that it wholly betrays who David appears to be at the outset of the film.

At just under two hours, this is one of those movies that would probably work better as a short. At its current length, Rent-A-Pal undercuts its characters when it leans into genre, and undercuts its genre elements by being bogged down with character concerns. Still, the performances are all exceptional, and the central idea is compelling enough that the film is worth a watch, even if it could use some tightening up.

Rent-A-Pal is now available for digital rental.

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