Actor Dave Franco makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” available on VOD beginning Friday, July 24, which plays like a ‘90s erotic thriller meets a Tommy Wiseau melodrama meets mumblecore (subgenre pioneer Joe Swanberg co-scripted with Franco) only to transform into a slasher flick in its final 10 minutes.
Charlie (Dan Stevens, late of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”) and Mina (Sheila Vand of Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) are partners in a tech firm. To mark an unspecified professional milestone the two are looking to rent a swanky, Pacific Northwest-based beachfront property for a celebratory weekend of hiking, hot-tubbing, dining, drinking and recreational drugs.
The partners appear fairly cozy with one another engaging in flirting and touching, which makes it somewhat surprising that they’ll be inviting their significant others along. Charlie’s married to Michelle (Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie). Mina’s dating Charlie’s younger ne’er do well brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Lip from Showtime’s “Shameless”). Josh brings his adorable French bulldog Reggie despite it being against the rules.
The foursome are renting the place from the owner’s brother, Taylor (Toby Huss AKA Artie the Strongest Man in the World from Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”). Mina initially attempted to rent the place on her own only to be refused … she assumes on the basis of her Iranian surname. Charlie attempted an hour later and was accepted. Mina brings this up to Taylor none-too-subtly and he passive-aggressively doubles down on his racist rhetoric. Mina is obviously uncomfortable, but her white companions don’t seem to fully grasp her feelings. They’ll all eventually feel discomfort when a camera is discovered in the shower. Things escalate from there.
Franco has assembled a solid cast and I’d argue they generally elevate the material. Stevens and Vand aren’t especially likable in their roles, but they play the parts well. Curiously, Franco gives his wife the most boring, sexless role. (I thought this was Alison Brie not Alison Pill?!!! Sorry, bad joke!) Brie is inherently charming so the performance still registers. White is easily the most likeable of these folks. Then again, the dog might’ve done the heavy lifting in making this the case. I also tend to gravitate towards fuck-up characters in movies as I’m a bit of one in actuality. Huss is an actor I generally enjoy and I dug his creeptacular turn here, but I could’ve gone for more of him.
I don’t know what Franco’s ultimately trying to say with “The Rental.” At a scant 88 minutes it’s equal parts navel-gazing and indeterminate. Part of me thought he was attempting to grapple with his more famous brother James’ purported misbehavior. I kinda figured the elder Franco might’ve been playing a masked character that appears at the picture’s conclusion in a piece of performance art that’s very on brand for the brothers. He didn’t and it wasn’t. Ultimately, “The Rental” left me with very little other than a slight pause when using Airbnb … something a pandemic had already achieved.