Ever since its Broadway debut in 1996, Rent has generated a loyal, almost cult-like following. Showered with praise, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical touched a nerve among the young, artistic, gay, urban and alternatively dressed people who identified as outsiders and wondered how they would make their way in the world. Admirably, it dealt with both poverty and AIDS, but at least part of Rent's success seems to have arisen from its mystique: Writer Jonathan Larson, only 35, died of an aortic aneurysm just hours before the show's premiere.
How else to explain the phenomenon surrounding such a cloying, condescending piece of work? Larson's characters are not people so much as types: the nebbishy Jew, the incandescent drag queen, the sexy Latina dancer, the buttoned-up corporate lawyer, the hot-shit guitar god who's lost his mojo, and so on. While Larson seemed to want to work against expectations -- it's the black lesbian, not her white partner, whose parents belong to a Greenwich country club -- his signifiers are so typical as to be confoundingly dull. Worse, they're considerably oversold. Larson was writing about his life and his friends, but Rent feels like an attempt to portray a time and place ("Bohemian" New York in the 1980s, if you haven't heard) by someone who lives in rural Nebraska and reads People.
In many ways, theater is more permissive than film. Musicals, in particular, are the province of the overlarge: big feelings, big voices, big costumes and big production numbers. The challenge in translating musical theater to film is addressing both the exaggeration and, to put it plainly, the fact that people are singing and dancing. Two relatively recent films succeeded: Chicago, in which most of the production numbers occur in the imagination of Roxie Hart, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which the titular character is a singer-songwriter, so the songs coincide almost entirely with her performances. (Sexuality, art, addiction, poverty, marginalization, drag queens, rock and roll -- if Hedwig had AIDS, it would be everything that Rent aspires to, plus shimmering wit, excellent writing and gorgeous music.) By contrast, Rent never bothers to justify a thing; director Chris Columbus (who also helmed the first two Harry Potter movies) merely allows his characters to burst into song, even after they've nearly died ("I was walking toward the light..."). The result is absurd.
Rent's plot, an adaptation of Puccini's La Bohme, involves eight interconnected East Villagers. Penniless aspiring filmmaker Mark lives with penniless aspiring rock star Roger in a cavernous but crumbling loft. Neither is queer, but almost everyone else is: philosophy professor Tom Collins and drag queen Angel (the story's royal couple), and performance artist Maureen, who has left Mark for girlfriend Joanne, a conservative lawyer. Mimi, the sex-kittenish dancer who lives below Mark and Roger, isn't gay, but she is a heroin addict. This makeshift community is nearly united in its dislike of Benny, once a friend but now their landlord, who won't let them continue to live in their lofts for free.
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Roger and Mimi dance toward and away from each other. Tom and Angel fall in easy (if AIDS-plagued) love. Maureen has commitment issues. Mark might sell out. While worried over career, home, life and limb, the gang takes care of each other, rages against Benny and sings ridiculous songs.
Almost everything in Rent feels fake: the snow, the tenements, the sentiment. Only Angel and Tom rise above the self-aggrandizing circus. As soon as Wilson Heredia, who originated the role of Angel on Broadway, shows up in Christmas drag, the film sparks with energy and life. This joy feels real, not manufactured, as does that of Tom (played by the delightful Jesse L. Martin). The men radiate with good-natured charm, and it's impossible not to fall for them, even when what they're spouting is miserably contrived. As Mark, Anthony Rapp is also a pleasure, though it's a little hard to buy him as both Jewish and straight. Otherwise, the characters play as annoying and overripe.
Of course, Rent has its fans, and it's no use directing them away from theaters. For them, seeing the movie is an act of nostalgia, of remembering who they were, and how they felt, when they first saw it. They might be peeved by the added spoken dialogue (which is mostly a bust), but they'll be thrilled to see nearly the entire original cast reprising their roles; only Rosario Dawson (Mimi) and Tracie Thoms (Joanne) are new. For the rest of us, Rent plays as a very long joke with no punchline, an exercise in mawkish sentimentality that's embarrassing to watch. Kudos to the actors for truly committing to their roles, but with this material, it might have been better if they hadn't.