Dave Franco's directorial debut shows sprouts of potential, but withers individually
James Franco has proven to be a renaissance-man, who both writes his own poetry and short stories, to directing his films, and on the side he’s an Oscar-nominated movie star. It must therefore be a lot of pressure to enter the film industry being his brother. Dave Franco, however, has carved his own space in film, though sometimes in similar roles as those of his brother. Dave has now tried out his hand at directing, with The Rental (2020).
The Rental is the story of a group of four friends: brothers Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and respective girlfriends Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina (Sheila Vand). The group decide to rent an ocean hillside house for the weekend. However, when cooped up together, tensions begin to arise, specifically amongst Charlie and Mina, who seem to have better chemistry with each other than their romantic partners. There also might be someone mysteriously surveilling them during their stay.
For a film-directing debut, it was smart for Franco to choose an enclosed setting and a limited set of actors, as it allows him to flesh out and focus on the essentials of character building and atmosphere. The first act of the film was certainly engrossing enough, the sexual tension and discomfort between characters set a very unique and intriguing tone, and it would certainly have been enough for Franco to simply dedicate his entire film to this endeavor. He certainly had a talented set of actors to work with. Both Vand and Stevens are given the most material to work with, given the complexity of their attraction and situation, thus they are able to shine best from the cast roster. However, Brie (who is also Franco’s real-life wife) is able to pull much more aura and material to her character than the script demanded by itself. This leaves Allen White as the odd one out, though he does accomplish what his shallowly written character had been created to do, and thus the criticism is levelled more at the screenwriters than the performer himself.
The Rental begins to take an unnecessary turn when Franco transforms it into a horror film. Many horror films have a messy set-up, in order to establish characters and stakes, and then quickly get into the creeps and scares. Franco seemed to have become so invested in Mina and Charlie’s plight, that the horror aspects feel incongruously tacked on and forced. In fact, this turn only occurs in the final act, one would have been clueless as to the final genre of the film until then. Franco seems to have much more difficulty positioning his camera and crafting a real aura of terror or tension. There are some scenes that seem to be intended for a comedy, such as the difficulty in throwing a body off a cliff only to have it be stuck in the crevices, with characters pelting rocks at it until it dislodges, but these are played to serious performances and music, and clash horribly with viewers. Even as The Rental is closing out and digging deep into the horror elements, Franco seems to rush by so that we never get an explanation as to the why of certain acts. Thinking that the theme of the film through this horror is to comment on the perverse pleasure humans have of observing unaware people, or of the bizarre concept of staying in complete strangers’ homes, is dissipated with the little time and lazy execution of these horror aspects.
The Rental proves to be a rather messy film, which loses its pace and thread towards the middle, and spirals out of control tonally and plot-wise towards the end. The horror aspects were never scary, immersive, or tense. Viewers are only left frustrated with the halted exploration of character clashes that the film had started out with. Franco proves to leave some seeds of great potential in his first film, but as an overall product, The Rental proves the actor-director still has some way to go.