Starring: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp
Director: Chris Columbus
“Rent” is the kind of musical where dead broke people, who have just discovered that their power has been turned off by their landlords on Christmas Eve, take the screenplays that they have presumably been working on their entire lives and set them aflame in order to stay warm, only to dump the trash can that holds the screenplay’s flames – not the ashes, but the very flames that were created to keep them from freezing to death – onto the street below. The movie also takes a massive leap of faith in asking the audience to buy that this group of thirtysomethings are penniless bohemians. There may be something romantic about being young and poor, but it loses all of its sex appeal by the time you’re 27.
And yet, despite my gripes about this movie – and there are many – I think it’s finally time to give Chris Columbus some props. For a guy that started his career feeding off of John Hughes’ leftovers, and then took the path of least resistance for a good decade, it appears that directing the abysmal “Bicentennial Man” actually changed the world for the better. His work on the first two “Harry Potter” movies may have been frighteningly literal, but both movies were still quite good. Anyone expecting “Rent” to be Columbus’ epiphany is delusional, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t raise his street cred in the process.
The movie is “La Boheme” set at Christmastime in 1989. A group of struggling artists tries to realize their dreams of glory on their own terms, but also have other, far greater issues to deal with, namely AIDS, which is ripping their community apart. Aspiring filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) lives with Roger (Adam Pascal, who looks like an early ‘90s version of MTV’s Adam Curry), an HIV-positive former junkie who used to be an up and coming rock star. Mark was just dumped by Maureen (Idina Menzel) for a lawyer named Joanne, ow (Traci Thoms). Mark and Adam’s HIV-positive friend Collins (“Law & Order” veteran Jesse L. Martin) is mugged on his way to their place, and afterwards meets cute with drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who’s also HIV-positive. Roger attracts the eye of downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson), but despite his strong feelings for her (when she asks him, “They say I have the best ass below 14th street. Is it true,” it’s hard to argue with her) he spurns her advances, because he doesn’t want her to know he has a death sentence hanging over him. Even worse, their new landlord is their former buddy Benny (Taye Diggs), who tries to ease their financial worries, though it means muzzling Maureen’s upcoming protest against Benny’s employers.
As you can see, there is scads of room for social commentary, but playwright Jonathan Larson’s songs – and let’s be honest, it is a musical, therefore it is the songs that matter, not the commentary – only hit the mark about half the time. When they’re on, they’re spot on, like the killer title track (burning scripts thrown out the window aside), “Light My Candle,” where Mimi busts a move on Roger, or the brilliant “Tango: Maureen,” where Mark and Joanne bond over the mental anguish Maureen can cause. For the most part, though, the songs are admired less for their catchiness than they are for bringing Broadway crashing into the pop-song present. This isn’t to say that “One Song Glory” or “Today 4 U” (Angel’s shining moment) are bad songs, but that they’re more admired because they did it first than because they did it best. Bonus points to producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day), though, for putting his best American Idiot spin on the songs in an attempt to make them as accessible as possible.
All of the main characters are played by stage veterans of the show (Thoms and Heredia have the best parts, and therefore stand out the most), so you know that the performances are good. But the very fact that they’re stage veterans of the show is one of the movie’s biggest problems; the characters aren’t supposed to be a day over 25, yet the actors who play them are all clearly over 30 years of age (save Dawson, who’s 26). Instead of admiring Mark and Roger for not giving up on their dreams, we’re stuck wondering, How on earth have these guys not gotten a job yet? Dudes and dudettes, if you’re in your early to mid 30’s and still living in some squatter’s flat on Alphabet Street, clinging to some idea of success on your own terms, you’re either a) a fool with an inflated sense of your own abilities, or b) a trust fund slob.
And yet, that isn’t even the most basic flaw the movie has. In the song “Light My Candle,” Roger tells Mimi that she reminds him of his old girlfriend, April. Unlike the Broadway production, where you never see April, we actually do get to see April, during “One Song Glory”… and she looks nothing like Mimi. How, exactly, did Mimi remind Roger of April? Even worse, we see Roger in flashbacks as a rock star on the rise during a song where he sings about writing an everlasting rock song. Aren’t we actually watching him performing the everlasting rock song in the flashback? If there’s some ironic, Charlie-on-“Lost” subtext to these moments, it’s completely lost on the viewer.
It seems unkind to kick the movie adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winner while it’s down, but “Rent,” despite its redeeming qualities, is just an okay movie. It may have had its place and time on Broadway, but it feels dated now, which feels hypocritical to say given that a bunch of singing cats stuck around on the Great White Way for dozens of years. And yet, it is what it is. Larsonites will surely love it, regardless of its flaws. Everyone else should mentally subtract ten years from the age of each actor onscreen, and hope for the best.
The two-disc special edition release of “Rent” is one in which only fans of the Broadway production will really care about, especially since a majority of the bonus material has been developed specifically for this crowd. I’m not exactly sure a two-disc extravaganza was necessary, but perhaps the film and commentary (both appearing on the first disc) took up too much room. In fact, these are the only two items to be found on disc one, though the commentary track by director Chris Columbus and cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal is well worth listening to in its entirety. I would even suggest watching it with the commentary the first time you see the film if it weren’t for the catchy musical numbers like “La Boheme.”
Disc two features the remaining special features, and unfortunately, there aren’t many. Along with five deleted scenes/musical performances and a PSA for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, the only other extra is a six-part documentary titled “No Day But Today.” Running at just under two hours in length, the in-depth documentary covers everything from creator Larson’s struggles to get the musical made to the production of the Chris Columbus film. A very interesting featurette indeed, but is it really worth spending the extra cash on when a single-disc version of the film has also been made available? I think not.