|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 23 November 2005|
“Rent” is still the eighth longest-running production in Broadway history. It has fans all over the world who have been longing to see this movie adaptation—but this was also largely true of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Last year’s lavish but stilted movie of that play was not a major success; the same is likely to be true of “Rent.”
The problem isn’t that it’s badly done--it’s well-staged with many members of the original cast returning in the roles they created; the score is intact; it’s heart-felt. The problem is that it’s unimaginatively directed by Chris Columbus; he puts the play on screen but doesn’t add anything to it. There’s little sense of opening up the play to the possibilities of the movie musical, so that most numbers seem cramped and confined. The major exception is the “Tango Maureen” piece, which is choreographed for movie cameras. Most other numbers seem to have been staged for the proscenium arch.
“Rent” comes with a bittersweet background. Jonathan Larson noticed that most Broadway musicals seemed to be aimed at people over 40; he wanted to bring young people to the theater. So he turned to Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” for the plot, just as Puccini himself had turned to Henri Murger’s novel and play, best known as “La Vie Boheme.” (That remains the name of one of the more exuberant numbers in “Rent.”) That was set in 1830’s Paris among the down-and-out writers and artists who were considered to be living “la vie Boheme” (the Bohemian Life). :Rent” won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, three Drama Desk awards and four Tonys. Larson didn’t see it; he has killed by an aortic aneurysm on the eve of “Rent”’s first preview.
Larson set his play in Manhattan’s East Village, starting the action on December 24, 1989; his cast includes artists, junkies, prostitutes, gays, straights, AIDs victims and even a young urban professional who started there but married very wealthy. But 2005 is a long way from 1989, and things have changed radically, even in the East Village. “Rent” is still the musical it always was, but now seems dated, rather like the movie of “Hair,” which also came along after most of the issues in the play were settled.
The opening numbers, which overlap, are probably the best, the most imaginatively adapted to the movie screen. “525,600 Minutes,” in the daylight—with would-be moviemaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) riding a bike through traffic—to night, with the fire escapes on both sides of the rundown block that’s the main setting filled with people tossing blazing newspapers into the street.
Mark rooms with Roger (Adam Pascal), whom we learn has AIDS, and whose girlfriend—who gave it to him—is now dead. The production notes say she was a suicide, but that isn’t clear in the film. What is clear is that Roger, a rock musician, has become bitter and reclusive. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin, from “Law & Order”), is the third roommate. He’s a sometimes college professor, gay and lonely. As he arrives at the condemned flat where they all live, he’s mugged by gang members, and rescued by graceful Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who becomes his lover.
The well-dressed Benny (Taye Diggs), once one of the roommates, has married a rich woman and is part of a consortium bent on demolishing the local buildings and erecting a profit-making establishment. He keeps giving the central characters a few days to clear out.
Mark was dumped by egocentric performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who’s now taken up with a young urban lawyer, Joanne (Tracie Thoms), who is none too happy to meet the bisexual Maureen’s earlier main squeeze. Their encounter leads to the ironic, funny “Tango Maureen.”
Roger meets Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a junkie who lives one flight below. She’s attracted to him, and he is attracted to her (who wouldn’t be? Dawson is gorgeous), but repelled by her drug addiction. She’s a stripper at the Cat Scratch Club, and one number Is set there—but Dawson is actually sexier in a sweater than in the three ounces of spangles she wears as a dancer. Mimi was the central character in Puccini’s opera, but doesn’t quite reach that status here; instead, the concept of forging a family out of fellow down-and-outers is the center of “Rent,” and the source of its primary appeal.
Larson was perhaps a little too faithful to Puccini in having much of the dialogue sung; it’s disconcerting to hear a line like “I think I dropped my stash” sung rather than spoken, or “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.” Fortunately, Columbus takes great care that all of the dialogue and songs is crystal-clear; in recent musicals, including “Moulin Rouge” and “Phantom of the Opera,” familiarity with the words has led filmmakers down the wrong path: THEY know the words, so WE should know the words, too.
Except for the progress of the relationship between Roger and Mimi, “Rent” lacks a real plot, and that it does have is a bit foggy. It’s unclear to me whether the action takes place over one or two years. One of the central characters dies of AIDS, presented as a greater tragedy than the audience probably considers it to be, inasmuch as the person who dies has one or two musical numbers—but very little dialogue.
Columbus has insisted on a realistic setting for this stylized production, so realistic than when the actors are outdoors, you can often see their breath when they sing or talk. On the other hand, grunge is rarely very grungy; everything seems a little too set-dressed and tidy. There’s no clear suggestion as to how most of these people earn the little money they have, though in the last third, Mark does begin selling his films to a TV news show. He considers it a sell-out; on the other hand, the film of his we see is anything but remarkable, so maybe he should sell out while there are buyers.
“Rent” may be grim, but it’s resolutely, determinedly upbeat. We may only be renting these lives of ours, since they’re so transitory, but there’s no day like today to try to achieve happiness on whatever terms you can get. No complaints about this message, or about the rock-themed songs (at the preview, blessedly NOT played at ear-splitting volume), but by this time, almost ten years after it was first presented. “Rent” is more than a little dated. It’s still interesting and entertaining, but partly because its time has passed, and partly because Chris Columbus isn’t a good enough director to rouse audience emotions, it’s an experience you watch rather than being involved in, certainly not as deeply as fans of the play have been.
Production values are fine, though the photography is always dark, presumably to emphasize just how serious this all is despite the singing and dancing. The production design is mostly realistic, even when less realism would have benefited the scene (as in the “La Vie Boheme” number). Those in the cast who impress most are Dawson, Thoms and Menzel (who resembles Sandra Bernhard).
The success of the play will not be repeated in movie theaters; it’s likely to do well enough (and probably wasn’t all that expensive to make) and then have a long life on home video.