In my mind, Dave Franco has always felt like the kid brother to uber-famous “Spider-Man” alum and Oscar-nominee James Franco. Over the last decade, though, the younger Franco has stuck out a bit more with roles in hits like “21 Jump Street” and “Now You See Me.” Just a few years ago, he co-starred alongside his brother in the critically-acclaimed “The Disaster Artist.”
Now, he’s making his debut on the other side of the camera with “The Rental,” a horror film from IFC Films which he co-wrote and directed. Alison Brie, Franco’s wife, stars as the film’s lead – because are you really a Franco if you’re not casting family members in your movies? Brie plays Michelle, while Dan Stevens is Charlie, her husband. The couple decide to go on a weekend getaway to a beach rental home, along with Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). Unfortunately, this vacation gone awry isn’t anything you haven’t already seen done before – and done better.
Similar to “The Old Guard” on Netflix earlier this month, “The Rental” looks and feels bland and uninspired. It would be easy to give Franco a pass because it’s his first screenplay and directorial effort, but then you think about how many amazing horror debuts have come to pass in the last several years: “It Follows” in 2014, “The Witch” in 2016, “Get Out” in 2017 and “Hereditary” in 2018. All of these feature debuts had razor-sharp teeth and wit to match. It helps that guys like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster are students of the form. Yes, they’re brilliant in their respective sensibilities and aesthetics, but they understand all the elements that need to come together on screen. “The Rental” doesn’t go balls out with any pagan rituals or brain transplants to get the viewer’s blood flowing, but it doesn’t need to. It aims for a dark, relationship drama with psychological bits of horror sprinkled throughout, producing something more akin to Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation.” However, “The Rental” has a fraction of even that project’s atmosphere and stylistic flair. While all of those previous films carefully ratcheted up the tension from scene one and never relented, climaxing with bloody and piercing violence and terror, this one meanders from scene to scene as the couples bicker and gradually become more paranoid about the homeowner’s intentions.
Franco makes a few attempts to do interesting things and shock the audience, but the script is as confused about the characters and plot details as it is about its heftier themes. “How’d you get mixed up in this family?” the homeowner, Taylor (Toby Huss), asks Mina upon their arrival — although, he’s not actually the homeowner and claims he’s just taking care of it for his brother. This is a minor detail that seems to be setting up a fun twist later, but ultimately it makes the film’s conclusion all the more confusing. It turns out Taylor denied Mina’s previous requests to rent the home, but Charlie was immediately approved. Mina confronts him about this, but Taylor plays coy and leaves them to their stay, tires squealing as he peels off in his truck. Mina looks Middle Eastern and her last name, Mohammadi, is “about as Middle Eastern as it gets” as Charlie points out. Franco is clearly aiming for some social commentary on racial profiling and bigotry, but it never amounts to anything with a lasting impact. It’s hammered into the viewer’s head at the outset, yet fades into the background as the film wears on. In the end, if Mina had been white like everyone else in the film, the rest of the plot would play out entirely the same way.
While there may be issues with the plot, the performances themselves are mostly solid. Stevens and Brie are both reliable and do fine jobs with the roles they’re given, but White comes off a bit over the top and forceful at times. The real standout here, though, is Sheila Vand as Mina. In fact, I was shocked when I looked her up afterward and discovered that she played the titular role of 2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Her performance was mesmerizing then, and the Iranian-American actor deserves better than a project like this. What really weighs down this film – more than the tired, amalgamated concept – is that the characters are just as stale and oftentimes flat-out stupid. In the end, better and more intelligent characters would never end up in the situation that all of these people do. Yes, characters should influence the plot and not just be passive pawns, but their lack of intelligence shouldn’t be the driving force, either. The audience needs someone to cheer for or empathize with, and that’s missing here. Even films with the most despicable or irredeemable characters, like “American Psycho” or “Nightcrawler,” are riveting because those characters are entertaining and gripping, brought to life with phenomenal performances. When you have a bunch of idiots getting themselves into trouble, it really just becomes a comedy of errors.
At the end of the day, “The Rental” is just another VOD horror flick wrapped in drama and thriller trappings. Unfortunately, it has neither enough scares or thrills to keep you on the edge of your seat, nor does it have strong enough characters to provide engaging drama. Sheila Vand puts together some promising work, but something tells me “The Rental” may not have gotten the green light if Mr. Franco wasn’t the one with his name attached to it.
If you’re a film fan looking for something fresh to get you through the pandemic, you’re better off looking for elsewhere.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5
“The Rental” is now available to rent on VOD.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."