A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

RENT j
½ 

2005, PG-13, 136 mins.

Mimi Marquez: Rosario Dawson / Benjamin Coffin: Taye Diggs /  Tom Collins: Jesse L. Martin / Maureen Johnson: Idina Menzel / Roger Davis: Adam Pascal / Mark Cohen: Anthony Rapp
 

Directed by Chris Columbus / Written by Columbus and Stephen Chbosky /

Based on the musical drama "Rent," by Jonathan Larson

After struggling to sit through the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize winning musical - RENT - I was left wondering why I signed a figurative lease that committed me to be in the cineplex to endure it.  Surely, while watching this film – which clocks in at the absorbingly long running time of nearly 140 minutes – I sure did feel like I was stranded in the theatre for “five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes.” 

As far as successful screen musicals go, this version of RENT – helmed by Chris Columbus, and ten years well in the making – is about as flaccid, lifeless, and pretentious as they come.  This version is one that’s dripping with teeth grating melodrama and elicits more unintentional laughs and groans than inspiration.

I have never seen the original Broadway musical.  This review is not one of that 1996 stage parable.  I have only a modest inkling of familiarity with the now famous songs from the musical.  As a result, I am going out of my way to point out that - yes - I am a complete virgin to the RENT experience.  For those that have loved the stage version over the last ten years you will, no doubt, find this film adaptation slavishly faithful, entertaining, and nostalgically charming.  For the rest of us (that have had zero exposure to the Larson’s original rock opera) Columbus’ film is a bit more of a snooze-inducing endurance test that fails to uplift.  A lot of people will probably love RENT with every fiber of their being.  I am not one of them. 

So, what’s the big deal with this film?  Why is this rock opera such an event that it took nearly a decade to get to the silver screen and was passed by some directors like Spike Lee and Baz Luhrmann, Sam Mendes, and Rob Marshall?  To the uninitiated, the stage version of RENT is an adaptation of Puccini’s 100-year-old opera LA BOHEME.  That work was set primarily in 19th Century Paris and concerned the lives of a group of people in the backdrop of the biggest scourge of its time – tuberculosis.  RENT, superficially at least, is much like the opera but contemporizes everything.  Instead of bohemians in Paris we get bohemians in modern day (well, 1989-90) New York and this time the death plague is AIDS. 

More than anything, RENT is manipulative schlock.  It takes great strides to make us feel for a bunch of twenty something slackers who just can’t get off of their collective asses, get jobs, and stop complaining about the existentialist funk they are in.  I mean...it’s hard to invest in a bunch of whinny, misguided youth who complain about not having money to pay their rent when they could find employment whenever they wanted to.  Oh, half of them also have AIDS, which only further pushes us to want to root for them.  Sorry, no deal.

RENT, at least in the film version, does not have one character that I attached myself to.  Why?  Maybe because all of them are strangely one note, cardboard stereotypes that are – let’s face it – unemployed losers.  They are an eclectic bunch, to be sure – squatters, drug junkies, performance artists, out-of-work rock stars, struggling and aspiring filmmakers, and if that was not enough, one of them is a raging drag queen.  And yes, four out of the eight are HIV positive and will most surely die.  I dunno, but it’s just too damn hard for me to find any way to invest in a group of ragtag friends that do nothing for a living, complain about being poor, have life-crippling diseases, do too much smack, and worship their transvestite friend named - hilariously - Angel.

Okay, okay…you may think that I am not looking at this film through the right cultural and historical lenses.  Truth be told, when RENT was released in 1996 it was at a time when the Broadway creative vacuum took a bold step with a work of a more troublesome subject matter.  Larson’s musical could easily brag that it was the first to tell a story of social relevance for its time.  Yes, some of the themes have familiarity – like living a life without a promise of a bright tomorrow.  Further to that, it was a revolutionary work – to a small degree – because it narrowed its focus on the AIDS epidemic in frank and personal ways.  Hmmmm…this undoubtedly made for a stirring piece of social commentary in the 90’s, but by 2005 standards, RENT feels painfully naïve, extremely dated, and politically juvenile and hackneyed.  It’s funny, but the world of 1989 in RENT is a surprisingly open-minded and accepting one when it comes to recognizing and being tolerant of the homosexual community, not to mention being pretty easy going about dating someone with HIV.  Who knows, maybe I’m the one that’s naïve…but I doubt it.

From what I’ve seen in Columbus’ film, RENT is not only a sub par musical, it’s really a bad one at that.  The film, as far as my research goes, does utilize nearly all of the performers of the original 1996 stage version, sans Tracie Thomas and Rosario Dawson, who both feel like adequate replacements.  Much like his work in the first two HARRY POTTER films, Columbus is unfailingly devoted to the source material (and the film’s nearly two and half hour running time can attest to that).  Faithfulness is not altogether a good thing, especially when it comes to films.  I guess, on a positive note, RENT can be regarded as a cultural artifact and a time capsule piece that opened peoples’ eyes to one of the world’s deadliest diseases.  Yet, as a stirring film musical that endears and entertains, it drags and drags and drags.  It has endless song numbers and a mannered focus on stock stereotypes meandering aimlessly into a story with as much labored contrivances as an episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES.  In these ways, RENT is unexpectedly shallow, preachy, and lame.

As far as the overall story, RENT is as sparse as they come.  It captures the year-in-the-life of eight New Yorkers.  We begin on Christmas Eve in 1989 and it then concludes exactly one year later.  The main participants include Mimi (Dawson, as fetching and effortlessly sexy as ever), an exotic dancer, habitual heroin addict and HIV character number one.  Then there is Tom Collins (Jessie L. Martin) gay character number one and HIV character number two.  Tom has a lover - gay character number two and HIV character number three, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia).  Then there is Roger (played by Adam Pascal, who appears to have stolen Bon Jovi’s DNA), as struggling musician and HIV character number four.  His buddy is a fledging documentary filmmaker named mark (Anthony Rap), who is not gay nor has AIDS, but had the poor judgment to date a women that would later dump him, come out of the closet, and date another woman. 

His past fling is Maureen (Idina Menzel), one of those flowery and annoyingly pompous performing artists and her gay lover is Joanne (Tracie Thomas).  These latter two roles round out number five and six in the HIV sextet.  Yikes, I almost forgot about Benny (Taye Diggs) who is a rich sell-out and now threatens to evict his former friends.  Honestly, the musical paints this guy as the bad guy, but he’s seems to be the only one with some semblance of purpose and common sense.  And really, can you blame him for wanting to evict these people?  After all, they seem to have a yearning for not finding work for a paycheck.

I just did not believe in this story or its characters.  Am I supposed to feel sorry for these people?  Most of them are selfish, arrogant, and childish.  Most of them abuse the use of drugs and authority.  Most of them have AIDS and - yes - one does die from the disease, and that’s supposed to sway my sensibilities?  I did not believe in any of the convictions of the characters.  I did not believe that Mark was a documentary filmmaker because, let’s face it, his abilities with his 16mm camera are hopelessly amateurish.  For him to be given $3000 later in the film by a TV company because they see a natural talent in him seems inane. 

Oh, I also did not believe in the romantic love triangle in the film that involves Mark and his now gay ex-girlfriend and her new lesbian squeeze.  How in the world could Joanne love Maureen?  She is a constant flirt with other women and, despite her near infidelities, Joanne and her still manage to hit it off.  At one moment when Maureen is caught by Joanne flirting with another babe, she responds to her with the incredibly sill song number “Take Me for What I am.”  And that would be…what exactly?  A slut?

Oh, I also did not believe in Mimi’s character, an exotic dancer with a heart of gold suffering from AIDS who was once the former fling of Benny.  She wants to clean up, and when she does, she falls back down into the pit of despair.  She grows to love Roger, but jealousy gives way in his eyes when he discovers her past relationship with Benny.  Benny himself is also largely spurious as a character who exists primarily as the one who threatens to evict the “heroes”, sends the cops in during one of their rent strikes, and then – how’s this for a whopper – evicts all of them and throws out all of their possessions but then later has a change of heart and gives them back everything.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.

As for the music?  Like many failed musicals, most of the numbers in RENT fail to materialize in my mind well after leaving the theatre.  Only one or two were particularly memorable and well staged.  Many of the songs just simply don’t stand up at all.  The film is wall-to-wall music, which leaves very little breathing room to perhaps develop a better, cohesive story.  Sure, the music should serve the purpose of propelling the narrative, but when they fail to fortify and enthuse us, then what’s the point? 

Columbus does hit one high note in the film and it, unfortunately, occurs within the first few minutes.  He begins the film with the famous “Seasons of Love” and stages all of the principles on a barren stage that is illuminated by stage lights.  He uses the conventions of the stage to actually infuse this screen moment with a bit of artistic interest.  Maybe that’s why the musical is loved so much on stage.  While there it’s a bit more interactive and intimate.  Watching it on screen loses much of that sensation.  The film gets bogged down later by its own indulgences and can’t ever recover.  By the time we hit a crucial scene of Maureen’s live piece of performance art, it’s so jaw dropping in its badness that I just clued out to everything else.

Chris Columbus’s RENT is a mediocre and staunch adaptation of the beloved stage musical that seems about ten years too late for the big screen.  It’s way too long, too indulgent, too ostentatious, too manufactured, too calculating, and just too lacklustre and lyrically comatose as a film musical.  The performers all seem equal to the task, but when you are berated by a story that lacks credibility, characters that fail to inspire my empathy, and musical numbers that have form but no energy or vitality, then what is there left to admire?  Some will read this review and think that I must surely hate screen musicals.  On the contrary, I love the genre.  SINGING IN THE RAIN is one the seminal works of the cinema and Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE remains one of the most lively and exuberant musicals of the decade.  In comparison, RENT just does not hold up a candle to the best that this genre has to offer.  Sure, its penniless artists may bitch about having no money for rent, electricity, or food and they may have AIDS, but you ultimately just don’t care about them in the film.  I just wish, in retrospect, that someone would have evicted me from the theatre while I sat through it.

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