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Heartland Film Festival: ‘Room for Rent’ is a comedy that’s flat broke

Heartland brings many amazing films all to one place. There are so  many touching stories, moving documentaries, and beautiful narratives  that stay fresh in the mind of any viewer. Thinking back on my time at  Heartland this year, there isn’t a single film I saw, even the  less-than-good ones, that didn’t leave an impression. There’s a reason  audience ballots are scored from “fair” to “excellent,” because really,  there aren’t too many bad films at Heartland. At the very least, bad but  ambitious films still leave an impact on a viewer, especially one  that’s not used to viewing actual, artistically minded films.

However, that’s all aside from Room for Rent, a film that’s  creating a vacancy in my mind for things that are interesting, funny,  compelling, or actually good. Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but of all the  films at Heartland, this isn’t one to remember.

The story follows ex-lottery winner Mitch Baldwin, now broke, sad,  lonely, and entitled, as he concocts a plan to allow his family to keep  paying for their forever home. His genius plan is to rent out the  storage room to a stranger and have them pay the remainder of what they  need. His parents are skeptical until the stranger of choice, Carl,  shows up on a dark, stormy night. Carl proceeds to worm his way into the  family and slowly attempt to replace Mitch in the family unit, leading  Mitch to grow suspicious of this stranger who appeared from nowhere.  Combined with a car without license plates, general shady behavior, and  an actual death threat, Mitch calls on the few friends he still has to  help solve the mystery of who Carl really is.

The most engaging part of the film is the mystery revolving around  this stranger of Carl. The audience knows he’s suspicious, Mitch knows  he’s suspicious, and even Mitch’s ex-girlfriend Lindsay knows he’s  suspicious. The mystery of what makes him so suspicious is legitimately  an interesting part of the movie, and based on the information at hand  and what we know of Carl it becomes a treat to develop crazy theories  and see which ones stay viable throughout the film. Combined with a  phenomenal performance from Brett Gelman, who completely nails the  malicious kindness that embodies the character, and makes a solid rock  for the film to build its narrative around. The other performances in  the film are all solid as well, with Stephnie Weir being a bright spot  playing a mom that’s slowly falling apart emotionally. Yet, performances  can only do so much when the overall narrative is based around the  worst character.

For the most part, however, the narrative is built around Mitch  Baldwin learning a valuable lesson about friendship and being a better  person. Mitch starts the film entitled, selfish, and thoroughly  unlikeable. Mitch ends the film a new man that’s accepting,  self-reflective, and still thoroughly unlikeable. A lot of the comedy in  this film is based around digging up Mitch’s past mistakes and  embarrassing him with them, most of which aren’t actually that funny and  just make Mitch come off as a disgusting creep. Mark Little puts in a  decent performance that delivers the overall awkwardness of a person who  had the wealth to skip growing up, but that doesn’t make Mitch a  character you want to root for. If anything, I was hoping the twist of  who Carl really is would resolve with Mitch getting his just desserts,  which sort of happens, but it’s not satisfying enough.

The other real problem with Room for Rent is that it is  labelled as a comedy, but it’s just not that funny. There are only so  many ways to say a movie just isn’t funny, but this one is not funny  purely because of its failure to make the situational humor work. There  aren’t a lot of one-liners or traditional “jokes,” as this film uses the  more reliable form of situational humor to try and create the laughs.  However, the situations presented by the movie aren’t really that  bizarre or unusual enough to make them funny. A lot of times, the  situations are more horrifying than hilarious, and maybe that’s  intentional, but that still doesn’t make it funny. Judging by the  audience reaction around me (that being the occasional chuckle), it  seems clear that this film didn’t resonate with a lot of audience  members.

The only entertaining comedic moment of the movie is the final twist  revealing who Carl truly is, where his motivations for moving in are  brought to light. The sheer ridiculousness of the twist was horribly  underwhelming, intentionally so. The entire movie was setting up for  this reveal, leaving clues and hints for the audience to follow, and  then the payoff is the non-twist of the year. In hindsight, it makes  sense given the clues, and the absurdness of it all is the one great  joke this movie has. If only the non-ending of the movie hadn’t spoiled  such a great anti-climactic.

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