Aging cast, fussy sets make "Rent" long overdue
Seattle Times movie critic
Back in the '90s, the Broadway musical "Rent," about a group of young bohemians in the East Village, staged a very cynical — and very successful — ad campaign, aimed directly at a young audience who saw musicals as something rather out-of-date.
Posters with chic photos of the attractive young cast and the words "Don't you just hate the word 'musical'?" papered the subways, and "Rent" became a runaway hit. (Also contributing to its high profile: the tragic death of its talented young creator, Jonathan Larson, just before the show's Off-Broadway opening.)
The irony here is that "Rent" is very much an old-fashioned musical at heart, inspired by the opera "La Boheme" and culminating in a scene in which a dying woman is revived by the power of a song. (An earlier character dies with less fanfare; perhaps somebody should have remembered to sing at him.)
And while the New York stage productions were highly stylized and theatrical, with abstract sets featuring junk sculptures and scaffolding, the new movie is oddly traditional and realistic, down to the last candle in those East Village lofts. It's "Rent" straight, as it were, though you wonder how they afford the candles.
And how you respond to it may have a great deal to do with how you feel about the material to begin with. The Rentheads (the show's famous cult) will likely be pleased to see most of the original cast featured in the film and the reverence with which Larson's songs are treated.
"Rent," with Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Tracie Thoms. Directed by Chris Columbus, from a screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson. 128 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language. Several theaters.
Those less attached to the "Rent" legend may well find the film a little puzzling; what works well on a bare stage may be less compelling when swarming with meticulous detail.
Though crowded, there's an earnest spareness to the film, unlike "Chicago" or "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," two recent movie musicals that found their pulse through a witty, glittery, over-the-top stylization that still managed to let heart — and fine performances — peek through.
In Chris Columbus' screen version, most of the musical numbers aren't stylized (a natty tango number is an exception) but based in a Hollywood-gritty reality that at times feels silly.
The first big number features an entire block full of people, burning their eviction notices and wondering in song about how they'll pay the rent, and it's exhilarating — and then it ends and the people just seem to wander away, as if they're going to go sing on the next block now. Columbus doesn't seem to know what to do with the moment (perhaps he hasn't watched enough musicals) and it's jolting — we're taken out of the story, then back again.
With a cast now a little too old for their roles, a little too immaculately styled and coiffed, and sometimes giving performances that feel too big for their close-ups, the film too often feels like what "Rent" was never meant to be: false.
There's still much to enjoy, particularly the whirlwind that is Idina Menzel (whose oddly snarling, distinctive allure is given the star treatment) or the elegance that is Taye Diggs. Larson's message of acceptance and love twinkles sweetly through the film, and the songs will remain in your head long afterwards.
But I kept wondering about a different kind of movie of "Rent," which we'll probably never see: one with a cast of 22-year-old unknowns, a handheld camera and a dream. Less, in this case, might well have been more.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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