In Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, the actor from Neighbors and The Disaster Artist combines two tried-and-true genres of film through which many young directors have first cut their teeth. The Rental begins like a mumblecore relationship story about two couples renting a vacation house together, before turning into a fairly standard horror film, complete with rising fog that seems to appear as the body count rises.
Arguably, the most interesting thing about The Rental is that it is Franco’s first time behind the camera, but considering Franco also wrote The Rental with Joe Swanberg, it becomes hard to parse out what exactly Franco is bringing to the table in this collaboration, considering this is in Swanberg’s wheelhouse. The first half of The Rental is tonally similar to films like Drinking Buddies or Happy Christmas, and the second half has the style of V/H/S, right down to moments of horror as seen through the lens of a lower quality camera. The Rental isn’t just a mishmash of two genres that never play nice; it also doesn’t give the audience a strong idea of what “Dave Franco: Director” looks like.
The Rental begins with a solid bit of relationship complexity as Mina (Shelia Vand) drapes herself over Charlie (Dan Stevens) and the two of them look at a seaside house to rent for the weekend. When Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White) enters the room, we find out that despite the implied intimacy, Mina and Charlie are only business partners, and Mina is dating Josh instead. These three, and Charlie’s wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), go off to the rental, where they meet the owner’s brother, Taylor (a delightfully squirrelly Toby Huss), who is immediately suspicious and possibly racist.
By day two of the vacation, the dynamics are already tested in various ways, like digging up old relationships and drugs taken alone out of anger. Things were already on a path of destruction before Josh’s dog goes missing and cameras are found in the showers.
Franco and Swanberg tend to change the film’s style right when things are starting to get interesting. These four together in their rental aren’t that interesting on their own, and it takes the muddying of these dynamics to make them so. The script tries to integrate some uneasiness into the early part of this film by having Mina confront Taylor about his racism, but this is mostly shaken off when the rest of the house willfully ignores Taylor in lieu of a peaceful vacation. Even more horrific are The Rental’s attempts at humor, which mostly come from a cringey scene where the group tries to inject the word “bro” into as many sentences as possible.
Yet right when the cohabitation of these four starts in an interesting direction, The Rental turns into a by-the-numbers horror film, almost as if Franco and Swanberg didn’t know how to end the story they were already telling. Once again, when this part of the film starts to take off with some compelling ideas and explanations as to what has been going on all along, the film comes to an abrupt end.
Thankfully, Franco does have a fantastic ensemble that helps hold this together. Stevens is great at this sort of charming-but-scummy smartass type of character, and Vand often steals the attention away from the rest of the group. But Brie is particularly fun here, as she starts to let loose the further frustrated she becomes, and even though he only gets a few moments, Huss is a true scene-stealer, playing his character just right to maximize the audience’s uncertainty towards him.
Franco does have a decent eye as director, and he handles the shifts in tone with precision. Even when the film is going for a warmer, more homey style, Franco always has a nice amount of shadow in the shot to hint at what is to come. Especially the night shots here have a warm glow to them, whether it’s from the steam of a jacuzzi or the brake lights of a car in the woods. Franco, along with Guava Island and Brigsby Bear cinematographer Christian Sprenger at least make this film look good.
The Rental certainly has a worthwhile concept that finds the inherent horror in the AirBnb model, but neither its intermingling couples story nor horror conclusion are anything more than serviceable. The Rental becomes two generic stories that don’t end up meshing well. Maybe Franco has talent behind the camera, and at least he’s able to get together a formidable cast, but The Rental doesn’t have the care and strong narrative that make this a memorable debut.