2 ½ stars
A frustrated nerd with dorky glasses, a bad combover, and absolutely no luck meeting women goes to a massage parlor, gets a happy ending, and falls in love.
If you think that is all that writer/director Christopher Fox has in store for you with his new film, Rub, buckle up and enjoy the ride. From those humble (if twisted) beginnings, the film takes you on a strange journey with more twists and turns than Space Mountain. Not all of them work, but all of them are unexpected.
The film stars Micah Spayer as Neal, a strange office cubicle creature who spends his days searching for dates online. Occasionally a male coworker or superior comes by to check on or make fun of him, but Neal’s personality – or lack thereof – quickly drives them away. In an unexpected Men’s room encounter, a sleazy (and married) coworker named Trevor (P J Landers) gives Neal a business card for a local massage parlor. At first, Neal is offended, but later that night, as he sits in his tiny whiteys playing video games alone in his apartment for the umpteenth time, he finds the courage to visit the place.
What follows is a falsely romantic, soft-focused male perspective of what prostitution is as the shy Neal meets, is massaged to climax, and falls in love with the beautiful and exotic Pearla (Jennifer Figuereo).
Then suddenly …
Until this point in Rub, Fox has followed a pretty straightforward storyline but has flavored it with just enough potential weirdness, mainly in the character of Neal (and in Spayer’s performance), to make you interested in seeing what happens next. Having seen similar tales of male obsession played out in countless movies before, you may think you know and are just waiting to be proved right. Ninety-nine percent of viewers will be wrong. And you better get used to the feeling because Fox and company play with their audience for the rest of the film.
More than any final destination, the journey that Neal and Pearla take – physically, mentally, and emotionally – makes up the core of Rub. It may feel a bit messy as you watch it, and the reaction of each viewer will be different to various situations along the way. You may cheer what they do, roll your eyes, or shout, “Are you crazy?!” at the screen until the end credits roll.
While Rub does a great job of engaging the audience in its mystery, it’s less successful in convincing us bout the intensity of the bond between Neal and Pearla. While Spayer and Figuerereo give solid individual performances, the chemistry that must bind them together is never there. And if the viewer doesn’t feel that from the start, and doesn’t watch it growing more profound as their journey moves along, then the movie’s climax falls flat. Instead of being swept away by the emotional crisis they face at the end and the heartbreaking result of their decisions, it leaves one scratching their head about it all. Until then, it’s pretty easy to follow the twists and turns in Rub because the relationship between Neal and Pearla almost feels secondary to the events they’re going through. They’re together, but their bond is never really put to the test. And when it is, when it fails so completely to come through, you feel cheated.