The Rental (2020)

When staying at an Airbnb, I always go through this period of unease in the beginning. Being in a stranger’s home/private room always feels a little strange at first, but I always get over it after about like 15 minutes. That’s of course after I check in the closets, under the beds, and behind all the corners to make sure there’s not a psycho waiting to slit my throat. Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, really taps into that 15 minutes of initial Airbnb fear to the point that it feels disturbingly personal.

The Rental is definitely one of the best horror/thriller films to come out this year. It follows a group of two couples and their short getaway in a fabulous Airbnb rental home. One couple is made up of Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and the other couple is made up of Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand). Once they arrive to the Airbnb, the owner, Taylor (Toby Huss) meets them to hand over the key and go over the house’s amenities. There’s something off about him that everyone seems to pick up on. Mina, who is Muslim, initially requested the booking, and her request was denied by Taylor. Charlie then requested the same rental and was accepted immediately. Mina’s suspicion of Taylor’s racism is confirmed when he makes some racially motivated comments towards her during their arrival. It’s more than obvious that he is not a good guy, but the group tries to ignore that fact since they won’t have to deal with him for too long as he won’t be at the rental for the weekend. As the couples enjoy some recreational drugs and cut loose at the rental, a horrible mistake is made that could ruin the relationships of both couples. It’s soon discovered that this incident was filmed by a camera hidden in a showerhead. This is the point in the film where things go downhill for the group and everything spirals out of control.

I love movies that make me feel like I have everything figured out until some wild plot twist at the very end throws me completely off track. That’s exactly what The Rental does. Who wants to watch a movie that is predictable anyway? There’s just something so unique about the film’s ending that really kept me thinking about it. It annoyed me at first because it left a lot of questions unanswered, but it also gave me the space to make my own assumptions. The ending both makes total sense and doesn’t make sense at all, so prepare yourself for that. Franco has mentioned that he left it intentionally ambiguous because he wants to eventually film a sequel, and I am so down for that.

We are officially in spooky season (and apparently still in an active hurricane season), so The Rental is definitely a good pick if you’re interested in exploring a new horror/thriller film to get yourself in the Halloween spirit.

-Britnee Lombas

Sleeping With Other People (2015)

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“Are we in love with each other? What are we going to do about it?”

Sometimes the universe will provide you with the perfect contrast-and-compare examples to show you how a movie formula is done right & how it’s miserably flubbed. Consider the difference between Ryan Coogler’s inspired Rocky sequel Creed & last year’s other boxing world drama, Southpaw. Both films use the structure & tropes of the tried & true boxing picture to tell their respective stories, but Creed was so much more distinct & powerful in comparison that it’s easy to forget that the punishingly mediocre Southpaw was even released that same year. A more recent & much less macho example of that dichotomy would be the pairing of How to Be Single & Sleeping With Other People. How to Be Single is one of the least enjoyable films I’ve seen so far this year (it’s no Gods of Egypt, but it’s not far off) and yet it shares a lot of DNA with the low-key charmer Sleeping With Other People, a brilliant utilization of the traditional romcom format that feels entirely modern without ever working like an arms-length subversion. Sleeping With Other People is a feat in genuine emotion & sincerity in a genre that can often lack both, but it’s also remarkably similar to a recent film that gets it all so very wrong. There’s a lesson to be learned in the difference between how those two titles play onscreen & it’s almost certainly a question of craft.

A will-they-won’t-they romcom with an unfathomably stacked cast of talented actors (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, and Natasha Lyonne to name a few), Sleeping With Other People is a story of the star-crossed & emotionally damaged. Two recovering sex/love addicts form a sexless, but deeply romantic bond while carrying on affairs with people they care far less about (hence the title). A lesser film would use this scenario to slyly poke fun at or sarcastically subvert the tropes of the romcom genre it operates in, but the brilliance of Sleeping With Other People is the way it feels sexy, smart, adult and, above all, honest all while operating within its genre boundaries. It commits. The film may admittedly be a little more vulgar than what we’re used to from the genre, though. It’s not likely that you’ll ever hear lines like “In your specific case I think you should fuck that sex addict,” or watch a woman learn how to masturbate as demonstrated on an empty juice bottle in My Big Fat Greek Funeral or Garry Marshall’s Veteran’s Day Eve. However, Sleeping With Other People is still instantly recognizable as a by-the-books romcom that delights in the way it plays by the rules. From its onscreen text message exchanges to its falling-in-love montages to the basic confines of its “We’re not a couple, but we act like one” plot, this is a true blue romcom with little to no pretension of being anything else. It just also happens to be well made, uproariously funny, and brutally truthful, a credit to both its writer/director Leslye Headland (who also helmed the underappreciated dark comedy Bachelorette in 2012) & its two stunningly-talented, sincere leads.

There’s recently been a sort of rejuvenation of the romcom format both on the big screen (Wetlands, Obvious Child) & on television (Love, Master of None) that’s encouraging for a genre that for a while seemed like it was on its last legs. How to Be Single felt like a growing pains process for bringing the low stakes romantic comedy into the modern era, never fully committing to letting go of its old-fashioned values despite what the title suggests. Sleeping With Other People, a film that shares two actors & a sex-addicted chauvinist protagonist with that lesser work, is much more adept at balancing a modern sensibility with that same timeless comedic structure. It’s likely there will be plenty of romcom junkies who enjoy How to Be Single well enough, but Sleeping With Other People has much more universal appeal to it. It’s a great movie first & a romcom second. I’d love to know if anyone else senses even the slightest correlation between the two (there’s always a chance I’m dead wrong about these kinds of arbitrary connections), but for me their differences & similarities are as clear as day. It’s also just as clear to me which one will stand the test of time.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Be Single (2016)

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When Bridesmaids was released to enthusiastic commercial success in 2011 there was an exciting feeling in the air that maybe, just maybe, there was going to be a significant, feminine answer to the decades-long boys’ club of raunchy sex comedies. Now that the honeymoon’s over, so to speak, Bridesmaids & its ilk doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary as they first seemed. For instance, there’s a sequence in Bridesmaids where the titular gaggle of women are on their way to Hangover-style sexual misbehavior in Las Vegas only to have their flight cancelled at the last possible second, effectively nipping their mischief in the bud. Half a decade later, female raunch comedies are still acting a lot more tame & subdued than their masculine peers. Take, for instance, last year’s Trainwreck. The Amy Schumer vehicle pretended to be a raunchy, no-holds-barred sex farce about a total mess of an overgrown child who can out-drink, out-fuck, and out-drug any of her juvenile man-boy counterparts without missing a beat. That setup somehow ended up being a Trojan Horse for some unfortunate moralizing about how she should probably stop smoking weed & get married ASAP to redeem herself as a worthwhile character. Joke-wise the film was satisfying, but its narrative arc was kind of a disappointment.

How to Be Single doesn’t even pretend to Trojan Horse its lame-ass, monogamy-promoting moralizing the way Trainwreck does. In fact, it does the total opposite. The film presents itself as a celebration of life outside of monogamous relationships, but spends its entire runtime focusing on women seeking & finding fulfillment through marriage & childbearing only to double back in its concluding few minutes to declare that, you know what, being alone is actually pretty okay . . . for a while. How to Be Single‘s title is a total misnomer. A more truthful moniker could’ve been How to Yearn for a Man Without Appearing Too Desperate or How to Cope with a Shameful, Childless Life Through Socially Acceptable Alcoholism. At nearly every turn where the film could subvert societal pressure to “grow up” & settle down, it instead reinforces the idea that life outside of romantic bonds is narcissistic & self-destructive. It even repurposes the Amy Schumer brand of a party animal “trainwreck” by reducing her to a sidekick role (portrayed by Rebel Wilson, in case you couldn’t tell from the ads) & an eternal punchline meant to warn you about the exact wrong way to live  your life alone in The Big City. At the film’s conclusion one main character is engaged, one is new to motherhood & in a serious relationship, one is a lovelorn clown, and one is happily enjoying a life without a romantic partner . . . as a refreshing break between her long line of longterm, life-defining relationships.

Besides being on shaky, stuck-in-the-past moral ground, How to Be Single also suffers from some glaring technical problems as well. The whole film has the look of a television ad for cheap vodka, giving off the distinct over-sleek vibe that if Zima were still a thing people could buy, these are the people who would be drinking Zima. The film is at first posed as a survival guide on how to enjoy casual sex in (a suspiciously whitewashed) NYC, but much like Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, that structure is a flimsy launching pad at best & the film mostly operates within a typical romcom plot structure. As soon as the protagonist (played by Dakota Johnson) experiments with casual sex for the first time, she immediately regrets her decision & doubles back to land herself in the most easily accessible relationship available. The movie makes an interesting structural choice once she gets what she wants  & lands herself in said relationship, skipping its three month duration until he’s she’s single again & declaring “This story isn’t about relationships. It’s about all of those times in-between.” The truth is, though, that the movie is about relationships. It’s just about pining for them from the outside looking in. Throw in a meandering, unfocused runtime that’s at least 20min overlong & you have  self-conflicted, too-well-behaved mess of a bland comedy that feels like a television ad for a product its endorsers can’t even pretend to believe in.

The biggest tragedy about How to Be Single falling short is the staggering amount of talent it wastes along the way. Comedic actors Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, Anders Holm, Rebel Wilson, Colin Jost, and Obvious Child/Carol‘s Jake Lacy all belong in a much better-realized comedy. I’ll even stand up for Dakota Johnson, who gets a lot of flak for the total shitshow 50 Shades of Grey, as being perfectly lovely in a role that asks her to be pathetic & vulnerable to the point that it’s a major turn-off. Her petty jealousies & lack of basic life skills (like, no exaggeration, dressing herself) are not as charming as the film believes them to be, but that’s more of a problem on the writing end than it is of Johnson’s at-the-very-least serviceable performance. She may occupy a kind of strained Zooey Deschanel quirkiness that isn’t usually my thing, but she pulls it off reasonably well. Rebel Wilson, by comparison, gets most of the better one-liners in, like when she encourages her regretting-the-single-life friend to “Go past ‘Go’, collect 200 dicks” before she seeks another relationship, but, again, she’s mostly played as a joke & any of her subversive potential is severely undercut. In a perfect world a cast this stacked would’ve been put to better, less-regressive use, but How to Be Single has no interest in pushing any boundaries & its marketing unfortunately spoiled most of its better gags in its omni-present, repetitious ad campaign.

The truth is that I’m far outside How to Be Single‘s target audience. It certainly doesn’t help that I saw the film in a laughless, mid-afternoon crowd of three stone-silent men (myself included). Still, the film felt like a long line of missed opportunities & a half-cooked screenplay that never fully commits to its basic premise that being single & childless is a perfectly okay way to live (until it’s way too late in the runtime to believably change its mind). This isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but it’s also a little dispiriting that How to Be Single feels like yet another example of female-led sex comedies that deliver a much tamer, better-behaved product than promised. If this is supposed to be feminine counter-programming for bro-minded, male-driven raunch its idea of genre subversion is milquetoast at best. There have been a few comedies along this line that actually misbehave in a satisfying way: Broad City, Appropriate Behavior, Bachelorette, and The To Do List all immediately come to mind. However, many recent, high-profile, female-lead sex comedies are a lot more sexually & politically regressive than they’d need to be to actually make waves. How to Be Single declares that it supports single women who are “living longer, marrying later, and not leaving the party until [they’re] really, truly done.” What’s disappointing is the way the movie suggests that the party does have to end, that living single is a temporary respite, that marriage & motherhood are an inevitability, that there is a “later”. I’m not single & I’m not a woman, but I still found that idea regressive & patronizing, not to mention a total cop-out to what could’ve been a refreshing premise in a couple sharper, more-pointed drafts.

-Brandon Ledet