Rent is a powerful musical that debuted on stage in 1996, won a Pulitzer Prize, and has since become a worldwide phenomenon. An updated rock opera of the classic tragedy “La Boheme”, the story is set in the East Village and deals with a pack of young starving artists in the late 1980’s. They face disease, drug addiction, sexual freedom, love, and an unfortunate 4-letter-word: A.I.D.S.
The anthem is “No day but today” because really, that may be all they’ve got left. But transforming the vibrant play into a movie should have been done no day, period. The stage is the intended venue for such a booming, energetic story with the ability to excite people while causing them to weep. Seeing this musical journey reduced to a screen with speakers is like staring at the Mona Lisa through a layer of glass. It just doesn’t have the same impact.
The story begins with two male friends sharing a loft and living in poverty: Mark (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring filmmaker and Roger (Adam Pascal), an ex-junkie musician living with A.I.D.S. Their old friend and landlord Benny (Taye Diggs) promised they could live in the artist space rent-free, but is now threatening to evict them so he can build a virtual cyber arts center. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) stops by for visits with a lively drag queen he’s fallen in love with named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), while Joanne (Tracie Thoms) is now dating Mark’s ex, Maureen (Idina Menzel). Mimi (Rosario Dawson), is an ill druggie stripper who takes a liking to Roger, and reminds him that there is more to life than waiting for death.
Make no mistake: the story is a soap opera. The sometimes playful, often blasting, and always moving music is a tool used to make the story more than that. “Seasons of Love” is the best known song of the bunch, featured in the trailer and in this case, at the beginning of the movie instead of the middle. The songs lead the plot from rocking (“Rent”) to flirtatious (“Light My Candle”) to depressing (“Will I?”) and around again. Despite the strong musical numbers, some tend to go on for what feels like ages (“La Vie Boheme”) and try too hard to be adorable (“The Tango Maureen”). I could have done with either of these numbers being cut, instead of “Goodbye Love” or “Halloween”.
Which brings us to director Chris Columbus, quite possibly the last guy on earth fans of the show would have picked to direct the big-screen venture. Thankfully, his usual influx of sentimentality and ‘aw shucks’ cheek-grabbing monologues are missing from the picture, and he is very true to the source. Rent is a faithful adaptation of the play, including most of the original cast (except for Dawson and Thoms). He has done the best that he could—and probably that anyone could do—at turning this story into a feature without altering or tweaking it.
And that is a big part of the problem. The plot of Rent, sadly, tastes like month-old bread sitting on a counter. In the 1980’s, A.I.D.S was a newly discovered horror that caused people to die without understanding what was killing them. Now it's an all too familiar beast. It lacks the kind of fresh punch that the film requires, but it’s just no longer new. Then there’s the characters, who are almost too cliché, a group of starving artists hanging out, scraping by, and trying to produce their art. Take Mark, who spends all of his time videotaping the world around him in hopes of making a documentary. When Jonathan Larson wrote the play, filming real life felt fresh, but in the age where reality TV is everywhere, it’s a big, boring yawn.
Casting the original stars is probably the only thing Columbus could have done to keep Rent fans happy, instead of going with newbies vying for the ‘It’ list. The actors do the absolute best they can, and their voices still sound spectacular, but in no universe are they believable as young adults barely old enough to buy a pint of beer. The biggest stretch is Jesse L. Martin, who looks no younger than 35 but laughs and jumps around like a child. It reminds me of later episodes of "90210" where you’re watching 40 year olds try to play high school students. It just doesn’t work. By contrast, new addition Rosario Dawson is particularly impressive. She capably captures the vulnerability of Mimi in an evocative way. This is probably one of the best roles of her career, even if the movie itself falls short of expectations.
Rent is made with such a true love for the material that it’s hard to criticize without feeling guilty. Fans of the show will appreciate the effort although they’ll possibly find their own nitpicks with it. Rent doesn’t deserve an eviction, but it doesn’t exactly feel like home either. Skip this screen adaptation and enjoy the magic of seeing it in its intended form: the stage.