RENT (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Memo to director Chris Columbus: In most cases, it's a bad idea for a movie to be a direct representation of a play. "Opening up" the setting is sometimes not all that's necessary to make a stage production into something cinematic. In a theater, an intimacy exists between the players and their audience. This cannot be replicated on the screen; a substitute must be found for this, and a way must be divined to keep the energy level high. Successful musicals, like West Side Story and Chicago, find a way. Mediocre adaptations, like RENT, suffer and seem diminished as a result.

This is not a review of RENT the live musical; it is a review of RENT the movie. The two are siblings, but this is a classic example of how bad choices in transforming a story from one medium to another can have unpalatable results. RENT fans, and there are a large number of devoted ones, will have opinions of where Columbus went right and wrong. As a more casual movie-goer who saw the play once a number of years ago, I was less than enthralled by this telling of Jonathan Larson's modern-day version of La Boheme. (When it comes to La Boheme updates, I prefer Moulin Rouge.)

RENT is a year-in-the-life of eight New Yorkers. The scenario begins on Christmas Eve 1989 and concludes 365 days later. The principals include Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer and heroin user who contracted HIV by sharing needles; Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a gay man who is HIV+, and his transvestite lover, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia); Bon Jovi lookalike Roger (Adam Pascal), a musician whose past drug habit also put him in the HIV+ category; and aspiring documentary filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp). We also meet Mark's ex-lover, performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), and her new lesbian squeeze, Joanne (Tracie Thomas). Finally, there's Benny (Taye Diggs), who has sold his soul to the Man by marrying into money and threatening to evict his old friends Mark and Roger if they can't come up with their rent money.

Story-wise, RENT isn't that strong. When it first reached stages in the mid-1990s, it was a revolutionary play - the first major musical to deal frankly with AIDS and HIV (four of the eight characters are afflicted). Today, however, it seems dated and a little naïve. The film's political points are trite. Some of the interpersonal interaction works, but even that is hampered by poor character development. Only a few of RENT's eight protagonists seem like real people: Mimi, Tom, and Joanne. Everyone else is either half-formed, unbelievable, or a caricature. The movie's central love story - that of Mimi and Roger - fails because Roger bears the dual cross of being self-absorbed and not interesting. Mimi, on the other hand, is a character looking for a much more engaging opposite.

Of course, what's supposed to elevate RENT above the level of the simple-minded is the music. In a live setting, it works but, at least as presented by Columbus, it doesn't. Only about three songs (including the standout "Seasons of Love") are memorable. RENT is almost wall-to-wall music, and much of it blends together into an uninspired continuum. Stopping to listen to the lyrics makes it apparent how banal many of these numbers are. Larson wrote RENT's music with the recognition that it would be performed in front of a crowd. Motion pictures make us a little more objective, and RENT doesn't stand up well to the heightened scrutiny.

Six of the eight original cast members return. However, the two newcomers, Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, arguably give the most convincing performances. Dawson has no trouble transfixing the camera, especially when she's doing her exotic dance routines. It doesn't get any more sizzling in a PG-13 movie. From the original cast, Jesse L. Martin (now a Law and Order mainstay) and Taye Diggs are effective. Unfortunately, the other four seem both too old and too weak for the big screen adaptation.

Columbus chooses to open RENT with a simple rendition of "Seasons of Love." The cast stands on a stage and sings to an empty auditorium. It's the movie's most stirring scene. For an example of a way in which film and theater can elicit different responses, consider Maureen's performance art. Live, it's an effective (if bizarre) bit of fun. On screen, it's embarrassingly bad - an Ed Wood sequence that stops the movie's uncertain momentum dead in its tracks. Columbus should have been shrewd enough to recognize what an utter failure this scene was on film, but he didn't.

RENT took ten years to reach the screen. During that decade, a number of directors have been attached, including Spike Lee (whose concept of the film would have been to make it more gritty and cut a lot of the musical numbers). The best thing that can be said about Columbus' version is that it's faithful to its source material. (This is the director's trademark - consider his slavish adaptations of the first two Harry Potter books.) But there's no inspiration and too little energy. RENT is mediocre and recommended only to those who can claim a familiarity with the play. Others will likely leave the multiplex with little desire ever to see the production on stage, which is a shame, since that's when RENT pays off.

RENT (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1