Rent is one of Broadway’s biggest sensations in the last decade and has become a cultural cornerstone for many. Jonathan Larson updated Puchini’s famous opera La Boheme, transplanting the setting to East Village New York, swapping TB for AIDS, and turning his characters into struggling bohemians fighting for their voices to be heard and love to be kindled. The musical also has an added sense of tragedy. Larson suddenly died on an aneurysm during the final dress rehearsal, sadly never getting to see his finished creation. Rent went on to win Tonys (including Best Musical), a Pulitzer Prize, and damn near the heart of every girl I went to college with. To say it’s been a smash is an understatement. And where ever there’s money and an insatiable audience, there will be Hollywood’s eyes. Now comes time for the Hollywood gloss with director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Stepmom) and when Rent ditches the intimate confines of theater and hits the big screen, it’s much harder to hide its flaws.
The story takes place within the span of one year (or 525,600 minutes as you’ll be told repeatedly in song), covering Christmases from 1989 to 1990. Mark (Anthony Rapp, Dazed and Confused) and Roger (Adam Pascal) are roommates trying to keep warm during the winter in their giant New York loft. They’re flat broke and their former friend and current landlord Benny (Taye Diggs) expects a full year’s rent to be paid pronto. Roger is racking his brain trying to write that one perfect song; he’s also HIV positive, the unfortunate side effect of a relationship with a junkie. Mark is an aspiring filmmaker and has also recently been dumped by the impetuous performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) for … another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a black lawyer. It must be noted that all three of these characters do not have HIV/AIDS; they’re in the minority. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin, Law and Order), a gay school teacher, is visiting Mark and Roger when he gets mugged in an alleyway. Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen with a heart of gold comes to his rescue. Both men have HIV but won’t let their shortened time stop them from falling in love with one another. Mimi (Rosario Dawson) lives below Roger and Mark and works as an exotic dancer down the street. She too has HIV from a nasty smack habit. She also has her heart set on Roger but he needs a little motivation. For a year these characters will interact and live, love, die, and sing a whole lot.
The villain of the piece seems to be Benny by default (unless you count AIDS, poverty, and ignorance). Our unemployed band of heroes is upset because dear Benny expects them to, gasp, pay their rent. The scoundrel! Here’s what I don’t get; clearly Benny has a dream for a business and the other artists denounce this artistic dream because it involves money exchanging hands. Benny’s passionate about his dream and actually does something productive like make friends and influences with the business establishment, people with capital to bankroll an entrepreneur’s dream. It’s like everyone’s mad at Benny because he put a suit and tie on and got a job. The scoundrel! Rent even manufactures a mea culpa from Benny that feels exactly that, manufactured and inorganic to the story. I suppose he’d be a better person if he were a vagrant like every one else.
Besides, there is something inherently pretentious about Rent’s anthems of sticking it to the man and brash commercialism. Guess what, after 9 years Rent is a franchise. You can get Rent T-shirts, coffee cups, soundtracks, and practically anything that can be merchandized and marketed to the disenfranchised youth with disposable incomes. A musical about the soullessness of commercialism is itself a cash cow, so it rings a little hollow when the deadbeats thumb their noses at the evils of capitalism. Seriously, Mark just about gets hives at the thought of being a cameraman for a TV news show (he calls it “selling out”). In the end he quits his job so he can make his masterpiece … cobbling together home movie footage. It took him a friggin’ year of artistic turmoil to edit a lame home movie? Selling out never looked so good.
Speaking of vagrancy, the film version of Rent is populated with 6/8 of the original Broadway cast (Dawson and Thoms are the only fresh faces). This is a well-intention move by Columbus but it backfires. It’s one thing to listen to 20-something bohemians fight for their artistic integrity and worry about food, shelter, rent. It’s quite another thing when the majority of your cast is in their late 30s. You’ve gone from a bohemian to a potential bum. I’m not condemning the pursuit of your artistic ideals and making your name in the world, but not at the price of food and shelter. I’m reminded of a line from The Big Lewbowski: “Your revolution is over! The bums lost. The bums will always lose!”
It’s hard to feel for some of these characters, who come across as whiny, slutty, pretentious, or just plain misguided. Maureen has a wild side that includes flirting with everything on legs, and eventually this leads to a song called “Take Me for What I Am.” Maureen is irritated that her life partner is upset that she was flirting during their engagement party. I mean, really, what’s to get upset about? It’s pretty bad when Rent kills off one of its main characters in a musical montage. A MONTAGE! Afterwards all the characters eulogize what made this person so great. Hey, all that character stuff would have been handier before the death, and then I would have felt something. Larson’s story really does a poor job of building these characters and making them likable.
Some of these same problems exist with the original stage version, but Rent the movie, and especially Columbus as director, make some bad additions. The original stage version of Rent took place in modern day when it opened. Here, Columbus has dialed back the timeframe and set his story from 1989-1990 (someone forgot that a song references Thelma and Louise, which came out in 1991, but oh well). What makes this time jump shaky is that the film also adds a scene of the happy families championing each other over their racially mixed lesbian daughters’ engagement. They moved time backwards but people’s tolerance was moved forward. What’s the point of changing the timeline if it causes all these anachronistic headaches? That’s not all. It’s bad enough that Roger has a Bon Jovi haircut for the entire film, but then Columbus adds scenes of his escape to New Mexico and we, the audience, are treated to Roger belting his heart out to nature on top of a desert gorge … just like in Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” music video. Maybe this finally explains why they transported the film to the 1980s.
Where the musical does strain credibility is its fear of fulfilling the dark end of Puccini’s opera. Moulin Rouge is also based on Puccini’s tragedy and it had the guts and the ambition to end on a tragic note. I‘ve cried at the end of Moulin Rouge, but I didn’t feel like misting up once during Rent, probably because these faux-bohemians kept me at a distance. (Spoilers) It’s rather terrible that Mimi can be brought back from the dead by the power of a cheesy rock ballad, and if this holds true, then Bon Jovi is wanted to the ER, stat! The cheap fake-out ending for Rent is just the nail in the coffin. Everyone has AIDS and thus on borrowed time and yet we can’t have an adult ending dealing with tragedy. That would break this romanticized fairy tale.
With all this in mind, some things in Rent really do work. The songs are catchy, somewhat fun, and the splashy lyrics follow suit. The cast collectively are entertaining and sing well, though Dawson can get a bit monotone at times. Some of the dance numbers are exciting and amusing, like the “Maureen: Tango” between Joanne and Mark chatting about the spotty behavior of their former and current lover. At one point we flash to them in full classic dress buffeted by a chorus line of fellow tango-ers. “La vie Boheme” is the sassiest and most electric song, finally piecing Larson’s sardonic, witty pop culture lyrics with a lively image. This is a musical that’s got clever lyrics, good singing, and catchy pop rock songs.
For many, especially the Rent heads, a movie version of their favorite musical will be bulletproof. They’ll be thrilled to enjoy an afternoon with their best friends on the silver screen singing their favorite harmonies. I’m sure fans of Rent and fans of broad musical theater will be pleased. For me, the movie falls apart when you pay attention to the story, the characters, the drama, and then the choices in adapting it to film. I just didn’t care for most of the characters and found the story dated, silly, naïve, pretentious, and overly romantic, even if the majority of the characters do have HIV and/or AIDS. Columbus’ weak direction and poor decision making turn Larson’s rock-opera into a movie that wants points for being different when everything about it has practically become marketable and cliché. I’d recommend buying the soundtrack instead of seeing the movie, because at least then you can turn it off when you reach your breaking point.