FILM REVIEW – THE RENTAL. With Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss. Screenplay by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg. Directed by Dave Franco. Rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexuality. 88 minutes.
The biggest laugh I’ve had in weeks came during the closing credits of THE RENTAL. See, I was sent a screener link from the distributor by mistake––it was supposed to be “The Painted Bird”––and in the mood for something scary during my usual 3AM end-of-the-world insomnia, one night earlier this month I wound up watching it totally cold, not knowing so much as the movie’s premise. After eighty-odd minutes of slack-jawed marveling at how such a barely-written wisp of a thing could possibly have attracted a semi-famous cast and national distribution, Joe Swanberg’s co-writing credit appeared onscreen and I cackled aloud.
For those blissfully unfamiliar, Swanberg was at the forefront of what came to be known as the “mumblecore” movement back in the mid-aughts, helming a staggeringly prolific number of middling relationship dramas shot indifferently on digital video. I can’t stand these movies. Swanberg came close to cracking the mainstream about six or seven years ago, rounding up some name stars for limp improvisational exercises like “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas,” but the indolence of these pictures was so insulting I swore the filmmaker off for good. (To be honest, the only thing Swanberg’s ever done that I really enjoyed was when he beat the shit out of hack film critic and bullying sex pest Devin Faraci during an exhibition boxing match at Austin’s Fantastic Fest back in 2012.) So had I’d known who’d co-written “The Rental” I probably never would have watched it.
But it all makes perfect sense, in that “The Rental” is basically a mediocre mumblecore movie with a sour slasher flick tacked on to the second half. As par for the course with Swanberg pictures, it’s about the dull relationship woes of uninteresting young couples, navigating their tiny problems within a bubble of unquestioned privilege. Dan Stevens and Shelia Vand play business partners celebrating some sort of big break for their new start-up with an expensive weekend Airbnb on the California coast––bringing along their respective romantic partners. He’s married to a tiresomely fussy Alison Brie, while she’s dating Stevens’ ne’er-do-well little brother (Jeremy Allen White).
You can tell from the jump how quarter-assed this movie’s gonna be when the writers can’t even be bothered to decide what Stevens and Vand’s company is supposed to do––the characters all talk about “the business” in such laughable non-specifics it sounds like placeholder dialogue that someone forgot to go back and fill in later. There’s a promising bit of friction with the property’s possibly racist caretaker (Toby Huss) that suggests which Michael Haneke movies were watched by director Dave Franco before shooting started, but like most things in “The Rental,” this is brushed aside to make way for dopey plot mechanics and tedious romantic revelations.
A bunch of philandering houseguests discovering cameras in their showerheads is actually a pretty good hook for a sicko comedy––one dreams of what Brian De Palma might have done with the idea––but Franco’s directorial debut plays only one ploddingly morose note. The muted angst of these cardboard characters gets swallowed up in the foggy gloom and doom of Christian Sprenger’s underexposed cinematography. Some movies are hard to watch, this one’s hard to see––I had to rewind a couple of the big kills because I couldn’t make out what had happened, even with my face pushed up close to the screen. (After difficulties at the film’s outdoor premiere back in June, there was discussion of remastering a brighter version for future drive-in engagements.)
It’s all just a rather witless, unpleasant slog. There’s nothing in these 88 minutes nearly as knowing as that shot of a lonely Ken Follett paperback on the Cape Cod bookshelf in Jeffery A. Brown’s flagrantly superior “The Beach House.” (If you see only one horror movie about leased waterfront property this summer, make sure it’s that one.) Franco’s direction is almost entirely devoid of personality, displaying zero emotional investment in the grim narrative. You watch “The Rental” wondering why anybody even bothered getting up in the morning to go make this movie in the first place, because their reasons sure aren’t on the screen. But I guess there is some level of self-awareness in that the film’s title was up until recently a commonly used pejorative for films not good enough to merit even a matinee ticket price.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality