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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Rent" (2005)

I saw “Rent” performed live at the Shubert Theater here in Chicago about seven years ago and found it to be a thoroughly entertaining—of a bit overlong—low-key extravaganza. Less a story and more of a series of operatic, jovial and tender songs about love, despair and longing, Jonathan Larson’s musical is—above everything else—a celebration of life in the face of death, eviction or starving for your art. On stage, it mostly works, even if it tends to wear out its welcome in many spots. As a film, the material simply doesn’t have a chance and too often the movie comes off like a sequel to the ever-annoying “Fame,” where the kids never moved out of New York or learned anything from Debbie Allen.

“Rent” could have at least been an interesting film, or even an interesting failure. With Chris Columbus at the helm, the movie comes off flaccid, lifeless and endless. Like last year’s equally bloated “Phantom of the Opera,” it doesn’t stand a chance at winning over any cynics or new fans. I walked into the movie wanting to like it, hoping the energy of the stage production would translate well for the big screen, but from the get-go, the movie shows its true anti-artistic colors: Six of the main characters stand on stage and Columbus films them from a few angles. It rarely gets more exciting than that.

Columbus is not a bad director when it comes to filming simple screenplays that don’t require much directorial finesse. It’s certainly no crime for a director to have a style that’s non-existent. I just know that when you adapt a musical that celebrates a bohemian lifestyle, the last person you should hire for the job would be the director of the first two “Home Alone” movies and “StepMom.” Columbus is a director who plays things too safe and “Rent” calls for someone who has had experience directing for the stage, someone who has a distinct visual style and someone who takes chances.

But as I said, “Rent” simply doesn’t work as a movie and probably never would. The structure doesn’t lend itself to being a smooth and briskly paced two-hour-plus movie. The play itself has little dialogue that isn’t sung and the movie lacks the necessary elements to immerse us into the world of Movie Musicals where we can take the new set of narrative rules seriously. I have no problem with characters bursting out into song, but too often Columbus can’t pull it off. Sometimes, I felt as though I was watching a bad Bon Jovi or Billy Squire video.

As a story, “Rent” has always been a mess. It takes place in New York in 1989 and centers on too many main characters, each of whom have at least one fun song and one sad one. Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal) live in a decrepit apartment where they are on the verge of being evicted. Mark makes movies (with the only Bolex camera in the world that records sound and doesn’t need camera tape) and Roger records songs, but has yet to write one he’s happy with. Their friend Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) has just met up with an HIV-positive drag queen named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who attends support groups.

Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) has just dumped him for another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms of TV’s “Wonderfalls”). Maureen is a performance artist who stages a performance protest against a commercial development headed by Mark’s landlord, Benny (Taye Diggs). Meanwhile, John has just reluctantly started a relationship with an exotic dancer and heroin addict named Mimi (Rosario Dawson).

With so many characters and far too many songs, Rent lacks a truly cohesive dramatic arch to justify its length. The movie ends at least three times, each ending about a half hour apart. The only musical moment in the movie that truly works is “Tango: Maureen,” in which Mark meets his ex-girlfriend’s new partner, Joanne, for the first time. However, why Mark chooses to actually hang around his ex and her new partner remains a mystery to me. Ask any dumped guy if he wants to see his ex lusting all over a new woman (or man for that matter), not to mention propose marriage to her. If I saw any of that, you’d have to put me on suicide watch.

But the idea of turning “Rent” into a movie should have been killed off anyway. If nothing else, the movie benefits from some of the show’s wonderful songs and the talented cast that performs them, most of whom are too old to be playing these parts. Unfortunately, the show’s lesser songs (“Light My Candle,” for instance) become lesser still and the musical numbers get little help from the camera and editing department, giving the performances a stilted and unimaginative presentation.

I saw this movie a couple weeks before it came out. We were allowed to bring a guest to the screening. I sent an email out to about 40 of my theater friends here in Chicago. None of them were interested. When I mentioned in conversation that I had seen “Rent”, nobody demanded to know how it was. Like last year’s “Phantom of the Opera,” the fans will likely go opening weekend while others stay away. I try not to look at the success of Best Picture winner “Chicago” as a fluke, just the result of good storytelling, a cracker-jack script and a director who knows how to film a lavish and exciting musical number. “Rent” will likely succeed in having an endless amount of critics declaring “It’s 525,600 minutes long!”

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