Starring: Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin
Running Time: 128 min.
**1/2 (out of ****)
Ten years ago I saw the musical Rent on broadway and it was easily one of the best live theatre experience I've ever had. It stands to reason then that the film based on Jonathon Larson's pulitzer prize winning play about New York's east villagers struggling with poverty and AIDS in the early 90's should be as equally compelling, since it changes absolutely nothing from the play. Strangely though, it isn't.
This is about as direct an adaptation as you can get with most of the actors from the original cast reprise their roles and amazingly it doesn't look like they've aged a day. Yet the movie is a mixed bag and left me thinking how something that was so powerful live could feel somewhat dead and emotionless on the screen. Next time I'll think twice before criticizing filmmakers who demand to "re-imagine" the source material, be it a novel or a broadway production. This movie has the opposite problem. It stays rigidly faithful to the original. Too faithful. What works onstage doesn't always work on film. It's a different medium and sometimes compromises sometimes have to be made. None were made here and the material suffers a bit as a result.
The movie starts out with all the characters onstage singing the opening number, "Seasons of Love." Why they're onstage I have no clue but it gives us an early hint the direction Chris Columbus is heading. He's not changing a thing. Rent follows eight bohemian type New Yorkers by way of the protagonist, aspiring documentary filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp). Mark's still getting over being dumped by Maureen (Idina Menzel) for female attorney Joanne (Tracy Thoms). Everyone's about to be evicted from their appartment if they don't pay Benjamin (Taye Diggs), their landlord. He used to be Mark's roomate, but moved out, married into money and now wants to kick them out.
Mark lives with aspiring HIV positive rocker Roger (Adam Pascal) who's falling in love with exotic dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson, who despite not being one of the original broadway cast members gives probably the best performance in the film), who's an HIV positive drug addict. We're also introduced to tranvestite Angel (Jermaine Heredia) who finds Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) mugged in an alley and takes him in. They both are also, as you could probably guess, HIV positive. There's no doubt AIDS was nothing to laugh about and a major problem in New York City and the country in the 1980's, but I couldn't help thinking this whole story seems really dated now. I suppose I can't punish the movie for that, since it's meant to reflect a certain time and place in our history, but you can't help thinking if this movie came out about ten years earlier it would have packed more of an emotional punch.
Even for a musical this had a lot of musical numbers, with some piled on one after another with no direction in the story and making the movie feel like it actually was 525,600 minutes. I heard a lot of numbers from the play were cut and dialogue was addded, but more dialogue should have been added because at times it seemed like Columbus was trying too hard to cram the music in. The good news is most of that music is fantastic and all the performances are top notch (only Pascal was pretty bland as Roger) with all the actors doing their own singing, and doing it well. Menzel and Dawson fair the best though.
After ten years it was good to know my three favorite songs in the play ("One Song Glory", "Out Tonight" and "Santa Fe") sound just as good as I remembered them. The movie was shot entirely in New York City, but the problem is the movie has absolutely no hint of realism at all. That's okay on broadway, not ion screen. It's as if they literally took the stage production, filmed it as is, and assumed it would have to work as a movie without opening up any of the locations or taking any risks. The ending, which had the audience in tears when I saw it on broadway ten years ago seems almost ridiculously contrived on film even though it's exactly the same.
None of this, of course, is meant to detract from the power of Larson's story, which is as great now as it was then. In fact, the second disc of this two-disc special edition DVD set contains an unbelievable documentary that tells the inspirational story of how Larson literally gave his life to create this musical. We meet his friends and family and learn sadly that basically everyone he knew did really die of AIDS and when he was dirt poor he wrote this for them. It's more emotionally moving than this movie. Those expecting a cinematic adaptation of Rent that's faithful to the original won't be dissappointed, but those hoping it does their play justice, will be.