Last night, my world-is-ending anxiety dreams manifested themselves as a series of stress imaginings about being late to perform in a high-school rendition of Cats. I was screaming at everyone that live theatre is dangerous in this day and age and that I would also look horrible in a fur leotard. Nobody listened. It was time to take the stage when I was relieved to realize that I was living in a dream and all I had to do is wake up. Detach from the experience. Float outwards back to waking life.
My son and I chat with my sister over Zoom every day during breakfast. Conversations topics encompass mundane updates, angry rants and my son’s incoherent toddler verbalizations. Sometimes I mention my dreams to her. I didn’t today. There was no way to feasibly explain the sequence of events in spoken word. Even writing it out diminishes the emotional turmoil of my subconscious travails. Sure, there’s a basic concept here: “I dreamt I was in Cats,” which, if you’ve read my review, sounds suggestive. But a high concept doesn’t always translate into a compelling story, and stories are the vehicle for meaning, for feeling, for entertainment.
Dave Franco’s The Rental — which lands on VOD Friday — is a concept without a story to tell, which is grating because the genre it inhabits is so basic. It’s a slasher movie! Put some victims in a room, give them a goal like survival, maybe some interpersonal conflict, and watch as they overcome successive challenges while dying off in entertaining ways. Add in a villain with a cool shtick or interesting backstory and you’ve got yourself a stew going.
So: Four adults travel from their Bay Area tech company to a beachside rental house they find online. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are work partners who have just gotten their company capitalized. Mina is dating Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who has a dark past. Michelle (Alison Brie) is Charlie’s current flame, excited for an opportunity to spent a weekend away partying in private. But Charlie and Mina have clear chemistry, and their respective partners work as hard as they can to live around the tension.
They quickly realize something is wrong at the rental when Mina and Josh find a locked utility closet. “This is weird,” they say, as ominous music kicks in. That’s the first of many instances of unintentional hilarity. Anyone who has stayed at an Airbnb or rental house knows certain rooms are off limits. Personal bedrooms, cleaning supplies, what have you. There’s nothing strange about the room Josh and Mina find, and the only reason the audience might feel that way is because Franco emphasizes the moment. So frequently this is the case. There’s no sense of danger beyond the occasional perspective pullback to the heavy breathing. We know someone will eventually kill at least one of these schmucks, and a somewhat creepy landlord without boundaries plays prime suspect, but the tension never appears.
The two couples’ getaway quickly devolves into infidelity and drama. None of the four is particularly likable or interesting, so like most slashers it’s a matter of waiting for the shoe to drop. Who will die first? How will they die? Will their relationships matter in any way to the resolution of their stories? Not really. Once the violence starts, it happens quickly and mostly in cutaways, as characters start to drop because the movie is winding down. Their interpersonal relationships reach no satisfying conclusion and play superfluous roles in who dies and how. On paper it must look like a story, but in the telling it still feels mired in the “What if an Airbnb was stalked by a masked killer?” High concept, all the way to its straightforward and dramatically inert conclusion.
Like an odd dream, The Rental was clearly an intriguing idea to the creators, but something that never morphed into a story with any resonance. Forgettable.