Most movies hit one note, or sell a single idea, and stick to the sales pitch.

“The Rental” is different. It starts out good and turns out dumb, ditching a promising, nicely suggestive first half for second-half payoffs (revealed in the trailer) taking director Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut into lame and lamer slasher-film territory.

The script comes from Franco and producer Joe Swanberg. The story’s a tale of two wormy, competitive brothers. Charlie (Dan Stevens) has just scored some long-awaited seed money for a tech startup. His business partner, photographed in the first scene to suggest a close intimacy, is Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s dating Charlie’s volatile Lyft-driver brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White).

Charlie’s wife (Alison Brie) completes the foursome, and when Charlie inquires online about a stunning oceanside vacation rental, two things are clear. One: It’s too good to be true, even at a pretty steep price. And two: The stage is set for a getaway fraught with drink, infidelity, drugs, hot-tubbing, unwanted surveillance and a menacing, drawling, insinuatingly racist caretaker (Toby Huss) who lives just up the road, and who doesn’t like the look, or the ethnicity, of Mina.

What works in “The Rental” — chiefly, Franco’s camera sense, and/or his partnership with the cinematographer, Christian Sprenger — reminds us that most problems with movies tend to happen long before filming begins. As in so many Swanberg projects, “The Rental” gets by for a while on straightforward sexual suspense: When will the cheating start? It’s a surefire way to keep an audience watching.

The downside with a lot of Swanberg’s scripts remains the barely examined, mansplain-y tedium of the male characters, coupled with the vaguely shrill, gently patronized quality of the female characters. Once the hammers come out and the corpses commence, you can almost hear the writers laughing to themselves: Yeah, well, stupid, but the violence helped secure the funding, so …

On the other hand, Franco’s direction helps the early scenes breathe a little, and establishes some effective, offhanded interplay among sharp-witted actors. Who knows? Maybe “good for a while” is a good enough review for this particular summer. I like that “The Rental” is opening at 250-plus venues, including some drive-ins, around the country this weekend, in tandem with the usual VOD streaming launch. The Chicago engagement at a real, brick-and-mortar theater is being hosted by the one and only Music Box Theatre.

Or you can stream it at home. Your standards are lower there, but we’ll all have to get used to that.

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexuality)

Running time: 1:28

Premieres: July 24 at the Music Box Theatre, and on various VOD streaming platforms.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

[email protected]

Twitter @phillipstribune


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