This thriller, the debut feature from Jon Stevenson — who not only wrote, produced and directed it, but was also the editor — does a lot of things well. Or almost well. But finally, not well enough.
“Rent-A-Pal” is set in Denver in the early 1990s, and the environment of its opening minutes is steeped in the tech of its time. To wit, David (Brian Landis Folkins), the hapless protagonist, is first seen using a dating service called “Video Rendezvous,” in which potential matches communicate via VHS cassettes.
Stevenson’s camera gets into the machines — there’s a good deal of hot capstan, video-head and pinch-roller action. Later, David uses a genuine film projector to watch porn.
The pasty protagonist’s real-life interactions are anxious and fraught. He lives in his mom’s basement; said mom is wasting away with dementia and needs full-time care. He’s desperately lonely.
Enter Andy, a bearded, sweater-vest wearing Wil Wheaton, the star of a tape called “Rent-A-Pal.” Initially a parody of those so-called interactive videos that never really made sense — because, you know, you couldn’t actually interact with them — the video eventually does begin to directly address the increasingly frazzled David.
The premise, a weak cousin of David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983), can’t support the weight of madness the video provokes in David. As Andy grows possessive and aggressive, the movie becomes more tiresome and predictable. David does find a real-life date and brings her home. There follows the “Oh no, don’t bring her downstairs” moment, followed by the “Oh no, don’t sit on the remote” moment.
Eventually the movie paints itself into a corner then sinks into grisly sludge. Stevenson’s technical skill can’t save him from a trite worldview.