© 2005 Ray Wong
Stars: Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms, Daye Diggs
Director: Chris Columbus
Writers: Steve Chbosky (based on the musical by Jonathan Larson)
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, drugs and sexuality
Running time: 135 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 6
Production – 7
Total Score – 6.8 out of 10
Everyone had high hopes for RENT to follow CHICAGO (forget PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) to become the musical event of the year. RENT, the crown prince of Broadway musicals in the 90s, makes a rough translation to the big screen in the hands of veteran director Chris Columbus.
The year is 1989 – at the end of the millennium. Mark (Rapp), a would-be filmmaker, and Roger (Pascal), a would-be songwriter, are roommates living in the slums of Alphabet City (Avenue A, to be exact). Their old roommate, Benjamin (Diggs), married an uptown girl whose father wants to redevelop Alphabet City into posh condos. Benjamin threatens to evict everyone for not paying their “last year’s rent,” unless Roger and Mark could persuade Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Menzel) to stop her protest against the landlords. Mark doesn’t want to have anything to do with Maureen after she dumped him and hooked up with a lesbian lawyer, Joanne (Thoms). Meanwhile, their gay friend Tom Collins (Martin) meets a drag performer Angel (Heredia) and falls in love. And Roger, hurt and downtrodden, refuses his neighbor Mimi’s affection. Roger has a secret he doesn’t want to share, and he sure doesn’t want to hook up with a drug-addicted stripper like Mimi.
Based on the opera LA BOHEME, RENT follows this group of down-and-out, self-appointed Bohemians through their trials and tribulations during the AIDS era. There are the “positives”: Tom, Angel, Roger, and Mimi. And the “negatives”: Mark, Maureen, Joanne, and Benjamin. “Rent” becomes a symbol of life: to live, or to die living.
Much of the original Broadway cast returns to this production. Rapp (WINTER PASSING) is touching as Mark – the sensitive, slightly-effeminate straight guy. He has some really great moments, including an interesting tango scene. Pascal (TEMPLATION) is also affecting as the withdrawn Roger. His motivation is sometimes confusing, but his voice is strong. Dawson (SIN CITY), one of the biggest names in the production, is excellent as the doomed Mimi. She shows feistiness but also vulnerability, and her drug-induced descent is believable. Martin (LAW & ORDER) and Heredia (FLAWLESS) are great as the gay couple, ironically the most well-adjusted two in the group. Menzel (JUST A KISS) and Thoms (BROTHER TO BROTHER) have a ball playing the lesbians. Menzel particularly has great fun during her protest performance. Diggs (SLOW BURN) is underused, here; thus, his performance really doesn’t make that much of an impression.
Larson’s book and music were the sensation on Broadway back in the mid-90s, propelling the show to becoming one of the most lauded productions in history. In 2005, the story now seems dated. The AIDS era seems so passé, as well as the struggling artists storyline. If only director Columbus (FANTASTIC FOUR) hadn’t apply such a straight-laced, heavy-handed approach in making this film. The script, by relative newbie Chbosky (THE FOUR CORNERS OF NOWHERE) might have worked on stage, but it doesn’t translate well on screen. The talking lyrics simply feel odd. A master such as Rob Marshall would have made that work, as he did with CHICAGO. But here, the way the singing heads sing through their dialogue (then back to normal speech) and break into songs really dates the film.
While the production seems lacking, the music and songs are what makes RENT still a musical lover’s darling. Columbus has the good sense of opening the film with the signature piece, having all the leads on stage, dark with only spotlights shining on them, singing the rousing “Seasons of Love.” There are other memorable songs, and these set pieces are generally well done. It’s the in-between scenes that rather drag the film down, and the ending feels cheesy, especially in the film medium. Again, sometimes something that works on stage simply doesn’t work that well on screen. Still, if you’re a fan of the musical, you wouldn’t want to miss this at the theaters. For others, just rent it.