Rent takes place in the New York City of myth. A place where archetypes run free. Where well-scrubbed people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations get along just fine, thank you very much, until the outsiders come in and mess everything up. A place where everyone has AIDS but no one seems very sick. A place where, when bar tables are pulled together, someone -- probably several someones -- is going to dance on them. A place where beautiful young people proclaim their love with white cornflake snow in their hair. A place where junkies mournfully shoot up in gloriously back-lit alleys. A place that kind of looks likes Streets of Fire. It is, in short, the New York that the middle of the country believes in. And that's director Chris Columbus' target audience for this film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical, which was itself an adaptation of Puccini's La Bohème with New York gentrification taking the place of Parisian class struggle.
The irony of a story where selling out to corporate interests intent on creating "Cyberworld" is the ultimate mark of weak character being told in a $40 million movie financed by a multinational corporation best known for making consumer electronics is apparently lost on the director of Home Alone. Or, if it did occur to him, there's no sign in his film, which bears every mark of being a piece of intellectual property leveraged for maximum profitability, its ideal cultural moment allowed to pass because theater seats are more expensive than movie tickets.
Despite the fact that the audience's viewing experience is similar, film and theater are two very different mediums. Adapting one to the other -- and, increasingly, it's a two-way street these days, as evidenced by the upcoming film of a musical of the film The Producers -- is tricky. Doing a well-known stage musical on the screen requires either totally abandoning realism for artifice, like Baz Luhrmann's superior Moulin Rouge, or attempting to shoehorn the ludicrousness of people bursting into song into a more realistic setting, like Fiddler on the Roof. Columbus takes the middle ground, creating huge but obvious sets for some street scenes and occasionally venturing into the real New York City (or a Canadian equivalent) and a postcard New Mexico desert for others. The result is jarring, especially for a movie that works so hard to smooth out any rough edges.
But really, we're here for the singing and dancing. How is it? Well, it's pretty darn good. With the exception of Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, most of the Broadway cast has been retained, and they clearly know their stuff. Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia are exceptionally well-rounded for characters in a musical. It is their story, rather than Dawson's Mimi, that provides the emotional core of the movie. Not faring so well in the celluloid transition is Idina Menzel as Maureen, a performance artist whose badly staged and downright stupid protest piece gets more attention than Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" ever did.
But, as a whole, the cast is clearly working its collective butt off. Rent won a Pulitzer for bringing the subject of AIDS onto the musical stage, and one can't help but wonder what the result would have been had a more adventurous director attempted to take the game cast in a more risky direction. But with Columbus in the driver's seat, the film meanders for two and a half hours, occasionally hitting a high point but mostly just slogging through, leaving an audience who has not so much enjoyed as endured the experience.
Opened Wednesday, November 23rd