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Review: ‘Rent-A-Pal’ (2020) Best Alzheimersploitation VHS Freakout of the Year

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Depending on what gives you the willies, this movie Rent-A-Pal might really get under your skin. There’s a certain cross-section of tehnohorror, family trauma and a weird uncanniness that makes this unholy trifecta in this movie. It’s all presented well, too; the package this story comes wrapped in is so meticulous, it really blew me away. Real emotions are in play, too. This isn’t some horror movie where you hate everybody and you’re glad when somebody dies. There’s genuine pathos here. It’s great. Wil Wheaton’s there.

Rent-A-Pal is a story about a guy named David, and David’s life is the pits. The guy’s a real loner, and not really by choice. His lifestyle completely alienates him from the outside world. His elderly mother needs 24/7 care; she suffers from what seems to be dementia, and she has her good days and her worse days. This is a particularly ugly depiction of Alzheimers. David’s mother isn’t much of a character as much as she is a burden. This, of course, further isolates David. The only person he spends any time with ever is a shell of who she used to be. And there’s no fault anywhere, that’s probably the hardest part. There’s no bad guy to point at for these troubles. David suffers a bleak, lonely existence, and that’s just how it is.

David’s lonesomeness is brutally filetted over the course of the movie. There’s this crucial vulnerability to how starved for company the guy is. He’s desperate. Because it’s tough! David has to meet someone who can empathize with the sacrifices he makes in life. Being with his mother 24/7 means he doesn’t have any chance to meet someone anyway. So it makes sense that he’s been a longtime subscriber to a “dating tape” service.  Oh, by the way, Rent-A-Pal takes place some time before DVDs. There aren’t too many era-specific elements that would root it in a particular year, but its “VHS-age” setting is super important to the story.

Rent-A-Pal 2020

David’s going back and forth to this dating tape service’s retail location all the time. He’s making new tapes of himself, he’s checking out any tape with any woman on it, he’s digging through bargain bins… It’s in one of these VHS tape bargain bins that David discovers Rent-A-Pal. He’s ready to dismiss it at first. What David needs is romantic companionship, right? But he pauses. Hey, he’s not in any spot to be too picky here. Beggars can’t be choosers. So David picks the tape up. Maybe a friend really is what he needs. Maybe he’ll find some good-enough facsimile in this tape!

What he finds is really just that, at least at first. He unboxes the tape, and pops it into the VCR in his mom’s basement. He plops onto the couch, and he finds a genuine pal. It’s a little awkward, of course. There’s so much artifice, right? You wouldn’t actually be pals with a guy on a tape, would you?

Turns out, if that guy is Andy, you absolutely would! We recognize Andy as Wil Wheaton, but I guess David didn’t watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Instead, he’s a little put off to begin. Which checks out. It feels a little pathetic. But he’s ultimately won over by Andy’s charm. And we are too! They really hit it off, David and this fake guy on a VHS tape. They trade stories, they share trauma. They even play cards together. It’s almost too real. Did Andy just answer David? When they were playing cards, how did Andy know what was in David’s hand? Our suspicions build, but David’s sure don’t. He’s having a blast, this is the best friend he’s had in a really long time. That’s probably one of the toughest parts to watch here. David feels genuine feelings that are brought on by a mass marketed product. But is this tape different?

Rent-A-Pal Wil Wheaton

Things really start to escalate when David’s romantic life takes a turn. He actually meets someone. Finally, after all this time, after such over-commitment to the “dating tape” game, it begins to pay off. He’s thrilled. David actually calls and plans his first date, one with a real woman! Everybody’s happy… Except for Andy. See, if David goes out with this new romantic interest, he’ll have less time to spend with Andy. At this point, the tape is sentient enough to explain all this, and it’s creepy as hell. Imagine having to choose between a hot date and a scary tape-guy who may or may not be actually interacting with you?

Rent-A-Pal is a zany concept, but it’s really anchored by these central performances by Wil Wheaton and Brian Landis Folkins. Folkins, in particular, just brings some A-Game, and I imagine he was acting to a screen most of the time. His is a story that gets increasingly tough to watch. There’s not much grace to fall from, but oh boy is Rent-A-Pal David’s ultimate undoing.

For a tragic arc of abusive friendship, check out Rent-A-Pal on Hulu, or rent/buy it on Amazon or Vudu!

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