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Rent-A-Pal

Title: Rent-A-Pal

Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:

HOMER: Television! Teacher, mother ... secret lover.

Brief Plot Synopsis:
 Video killed the maladroit star.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 2 Videodrome flesh guns out of 5.

Tagline: "He talks to you. He listens to you. He understands you."

Better Tagline: "Your [analog] pal who's fun to be with."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Large adult man David (Brian Landis Folkins) spends the bulk of his days taking care of his dementia-addled mother (Kathleen Brady). It's a lonely life, unbroken except for occasional forays to "Video Rendezvous," the local video dating service. David doesn't have much luck there but he chances upon a tape called "Rent-A-Pal," in which a man named Andy (Wil Wheaton) offers a sympathetic (and disturbingly interactive) ear. How will David's new bud respond when he hits it off with Lisa (Amy Rutledge)? Press 1 for "Badly" or 2 for "Really Badly."


"Critical" Analysis: It's pretty impressive to think how far we've come in the past few decades, especially in the field of ... er, romantic interaction. Sure, as with every other technological advancement, porno may have been at the forefront of VHS development, but for a while there, people even tried to make video dating work.

Jon Stevenson's Rent-A-Pal posits a reality where lonely hearts unable to make their match on clunky cassettes might just find a kindred spirit in Andy, an affable, cardigan-clad dude who just happens to share your unsatisfying childhood. And also sympathizes with your mother woes.

All this is to say the movie's premise isn't complicated, and you can suss out where things are going about 15 minutes in. Which would be fine, except Stevenson (who both scripted and directed) doesn't do enough to earn that meager payoff.

At least Wheaton is enjoying himself. Or maybe he's just happy he could film the entirety of his role from a soundstage easy chair. Whatever the case, he's definitely believable playing an initially innocuous character you eventually grow to loathe.

Stevenson, a former cinematographer, does a fine job capturing that murky, early-'80s Formica aesthetic. The house David shares with his mother undoubtedly contributes as much to his depression as his living arrangements, though he seems to be toughing the situation out ably enough at the outset.

Maybe that's what makes Rent-A-Pal implausible, even for a movie about a malign presence reminiscent of Max Headroom-by-way-of-Cosby sweater. It takes David an exceedingly short time to go from a fairly well-adjusted dude (especially considering the time period, in which home situations like his were far less common) to willing dupe.

Instead, we're meant to believe David's one night of bonding with Andy is enough to make him sabotage the only concrete chance he's had at physical contact in years (just a guess). Especially one like Amy, who's an improbably perfect match. A story this perfunctory would work better in a Black Mirror-style format, but makes for a pretty sparse feature presentation.

Rent-A-Pal is now in select theaters and on the usual streaming platforms.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar