Set in 1990, Rent-A-Pal centers on David (Brian Landis Folkins), a 40-year-old bachelor who desperately tries to escape the day-to-day routine of caring for his mother with dementia. He does so by participating in a videotape dating service—which functions like a 90’s style Tinder—but grows increasingly discouraged when he doesn’t get any matches.
He finds a strange videotape called Rent-a-Pal, which is hosted by the charismatic and charming Andy (Wil Wheaton). David becomes obsessed with the tape and finds a pixellated pal who plays Go Fish and provides the sympathetic ear he desperately needs. When David finally finds a dating match in the equally awkward, Lisa (NAME), Andy is not happy at this development and starts to poison David’s mind with gaslighting accusations.
Since his Star Trek days, Wheaton has become something of a geek culture icon. He’s also known for his exceptionally warm demeanor and the ability to make you feel like you’ve been buddies for ages. He cranks that friendliness to 100 as the plucky Andy. On the surface, he seems to be the perfect person: His sweater, neatly trimmed beard, and bright smile bring a Mr. Rogers vibe, which makes it all the easier to fall in love with him. Wheaton never lets up this hospitable facade—even when his character starts to become increasingly sinister. There is a scene where Andy alludes to having raped his prom date after she ditches him for another guy. The exchange is borderline sociopathic and stays with you for the rest of the film.
Folkins also shines as socially-awkward, David, a boiling volcano of rage who is one push away from erupting. He is continually punished simply because he wants to be needed. At one point, when he has to record his dating videotape, he gives a tender speech about how his late father helped those in need, and how he aspired to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, the only response David got was to cut his video down to 30 seconds.
Rent-A-Pal is a compelling character study but lacks the oomph and suspense of a traditional thriller. All the signs are there, but Stevenson fails to develop them and makes a jarring third act that feels like it was added for pure shock value. If this were set-up earlier, the ending would have been earned and represent a pivotal moment in David’s arc, but, as it is, the scene does the character a disservice.
Rent-a-Pal is engaging but doesn’t commit to a consistent tone. But with the right tweaks (and more Andy), it could easily be on par with the classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.