Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms, Taye Diggs
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic elements involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 11/23/05
Review by Mark Dujsik
Rent exemplifies why I usually have problems with screen adaptations of stage musicals. One cannot simply stage a production of a show and capture it on film with a few cinematic flourishes here and there. That kind of filmmaking patronizes its audience, assuming that because a theatrical piece is celebrated and has a following that a film of the same material must simply be a by-the-numbers production of the show—neither improving nor adapting, simply existing. Cinema is not theatre. There are elements of theatre that will never transfer over to film, and director Chris Columbus either doesn't understand that or his lethargic adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize winning rock opera is simply a sign of genuine laziness. Whatever the case may be, Columbus has not done us any favors in bringing Larson's work to the screen. The play hit Broadway in 1996, and after almost a decade, its significance has worn off. Columbus' efforts do not help, and he leaves the material as it is, making no effort to rediscover its importance, leaving us with something uninspired and trite.
Larson's story is a reworking of Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème set in New York City circa 1989. Filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) and rocker Roger (Adam Pascal) are two of the many artists living in an apartment complex where paying rent is not an issue. However, their old friend and now sellout Benny (Taye Diggs) has recently become landlord of the residences and has sent out notices for all the tenants to pay all of last year's rent or face eviction. Benny has a deal for them: Stop Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) from putting on a performance art protest of the mass eviction/corporate takeover of the area, and he will let them live in their current dwelling rent-free. It's a sweet deal, one that seems too good to pass up on, but Mark is living the bohemian lifestyle and selling out a friend just isn't hip. So instead he takes Maureen's phone call and heads down to her performance space to fix the sound equipment, only to run into her current girlfriend Joanne (Tracie Thoms).. Awkward, yes, but soon she joins the group of friends, which includes Tom (Jesse L. Martin), his new lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), and dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson), who has a crush on Roger.
Have I mentioned yet that half of these characters are HIV-positive? When Larson was working on his show, we were still at the cusp of the AIDS crisis in America, so openly dealing with the issue during that time was relevant and noteworthy. A decade later, a musical introducing us to the disease and its effects on its victims is superfluous, and the way Columbus handles this aspect of the material undermines it far beyond that. Most of the damage comes from Columbus' simplicity as a director, and his straightforward approach to the material results in a saccharine, overtly sentimental, and, as a result, emotionally hollow portrayal of lives ruined. The insulting simplicity of the depiction is merely a symptom of the movie's far larger problem concerning its direction. Columbus, in his reliance on straightforward, inoffensive filmmaking, has naively attempted to make a realistic musical. At some point during production, someone should have bestowed some common sense on him: Musicals are, by their nature, not realistic. The convention of people interrupting into song and dance is a blatant theatrical artifice; making it seem as though this is part of people's everyday lives is just silly.
In Columbus' narrow cinematic vision, though, words and phrases like "artifice" and "theatrical convention" have no meaning. Instead, characters are observers during these displays of showmanship, watching and clapping along to the rhythm of the music that must magically project itself from some orifice of the participant. Mark films some of them with his 8mm camera and, lo and behold, that's what actually is happening. Life is a song, and the characters are not participants but stand-ins for the non-existent audience (which can be the only explanation why every important character follows Maureen and Joane around Joane's family mansion during their fight song—again, it's just silly that they do so). Even more stupefying is one number in which Mark and Joanne break out into a tango, only to have Mark rendered unconscious so that he can have a vision of people doing a tango. What possible reason is there to try to logically justify a song and dance number when just five seconds prior a song and dance number erupted with no logical justification? Columbus also clearly has no idea what to do with his camera while the action progresses. Watch how in the "La Vie Boheme" number, he captures some of the choreography from the side, even though it has been clearly blocked to be seen from the front.
The actors are primarily members of the original Broadway production (Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thomas being the exceptions), and while they sing and dance as well as you'd expect, their acting is still remnant from a stage show, with overly dramatic gestures intact. Thrusting your arm to the side to emphasize the lyrics may work on stage, but in a medium shot it just looks—say it with me—silly. Rent is cinematic in areas it should be theatrical and theatrical in areas it should be cinematic. It's a stylistic mess all around.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.