[Review] Room for Rent

It’s been fascinating seeing Lin Shaye’s career transformation since James Wan plucked her from relative modern obscurity and put her front and center in Insidious. While her 200-some acting credits showcase a hardworking actor, her starring role in the Insidious franchise was a fantastic blast of nostalgia for someone who remembered her from her horror roles in the 80s. In Room for Rent, she’s a star and she carries the movie on her shoulders. Unfortunately, while her performance is stellar, it’s almost like she’s acting in a different movie.

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Here, she plays Joyce whose husband has just died from an accident, leaving her a desperate woman with piles of debt and no real options. One day, she discovers an ad for “ShareBnB”…or in Joyce’s untechnical vernacular a Share “beenub.” She’s incredibly lonely and desperate for money, so she decides to rent out a room in her house. Her first pair of customers are Edward (Casey Nichols Price) and his girlfriend Sarah (Valeska Miller) and it’s evident that Joyce is a little off-center and needy.

She barges into their room, for instance, to force cookies on them. Only one for Edward, who she calls “a little fat” after he is rude towards her. While this brief interlude ends abruptly when Edward discovers a better option, Joyce and Sarah keep in contact through letters. Sarah appreciated Joyce’s mothering nature and her advice to leave Edward (which she does) and so they become instant pen-pal friends. The next tenant is the mysterious drifter named Bob (Oliver Rayon), a dark and sexy man ripped straight from Joyce’s romance novels.

As she continues to read her books, the plots and thoughts of them bleed over into reality and she starts to see herself and Bob together. She starts to dress…well, provocative isn’t the right word. Maybe what an older lady would consider young and hip. She puts a pink bow in her hair and applies bright red lipstick, for instance. But her attention turns obsessive when she starts to do small things to be closer to him. She licks a spoon before using it to stir his coffee, for instance. Puts on his deodorant and cologne to smell of him. Brushes her teeth with his toothbrush, and so on.

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In her letters to Sarah, Joyce plays up the romance so that when Sarah enters back into the picture, the plot morphs into the oddest love triangle I’ve seen in awhile which leads to an obsessive thriller…that’s lacking much in the way of thrills.

To call the story plodding would be an understatement. The problem is that Lin Shaye (rightly) plays the character with a campy edge. The way her face lights up as she’s dressed in pink bows, rouged cheeks and bright red lipstick made me laugh at the absurd juxtaposition. It’s almost like a coming-of-age story for a woman in her later years. The way she confuses her relationship with Bob with the kinds she reads in her romance books is simultaneously campy as hell and sad because you start to realize that this is probably the first time in a long time (if ever) that she’s felt the tingliness of love or…more likely, lust.

The script by Stuart Flack seems interested in digging into those sexy erotic thrillers that were huge in the 90s, as it creates a love triangle between the three main characters. But with the addition of one of the triangle points being a lovesick grandma-esqe character, the movie never truly commits to either camp or dark thriller. There’s some darkness to Joyce’s character and her history. And her obsession with Bob has an almost Fatal Attraction-like quality to it. But it never pulls the trigger.

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On the other hand, it’s a movie in which Shaye’s Joyce naively snorts crack and coos, “My goodness. You’re not a boy” when she fondles a much younger man’s member. It’s this kind of whiplash in tone that, if done properly, could have been much more interesting and effective. Instead, outside of some ridiculous moments, Room for Rent plays itself too seriously and the tone never feels more than slightly uncomfortable for most of the run time.

My face watching most of this was the classic Chrissy Teigen grimace gif. Shaye was fascinating to watch, as always, and I loved her camp performance. But the story just doesn’t do anything with it. I wanted it to fully embrace the lunacy that Shaye so perfectly exudes. It needed that extra dynamic so that when it does go dark, it hits harder than it does. You need that camp high to make the place it goes work. Ultimately, it just left me perplexed.