It’s not something that I’d confess on the message boards in my fantasy football league or anything, but I was a bit of a hardcore fan of the stage production of Rent; in fact, I’ve seen it three times now (including once with an Original Cast Member!) and I still listen to the soundtrack a little more than occasionally. If that’s cause for yanking my heterosexual credentials, then I suppose I could do worse than belonging to the same community as Rent’s creator, Jonathan Larson, who successfully humanized a disease thought to be limited to a godless, immoral subculture (“faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross-dressers too!”) and presented it to a mainstream audience. Forget the artistic merits of Rent, Larson (who died only a few hours after the final dress rehearsal of Rent) was the first to introduce caricature-free gay, bisexual, and lesbian characters into the pop culture landscape, though it’s unfortunate that the most we could do with it is “Will & Grace” and Richard Hatch.
But never mind the gay civics lesson, you folks are here to read about Rent: The Movie, and the truth is, if you loved the play, you’ll probably excuse the film’s many (many) faults; and if you didn’t love the play, then you’re a soulless bastard who probably wears camouflage pants in public without the slightest hint of irony. Either that or you’re the unnamed critic (who once asked to have her reviews posted on Pajiba) that asked of the Rent characters: “Why hail the lives of a group of people who do nothing … get terminally ill, and refuse to pay their rent?” You know what, lady: They “got” terminally ill just to piss you off, you ignorant crust-bag, and the reason we chose not to post your archives was because you’re a borderline-illiterate hack, barely capable of stringing together a goddamn sentence without excessively using exclamation points!!!!!!
Anyway: Yes, the movie does feel dated, the original cast members are probably too old to be playing their parts anymore, and the cinematic treatment of Rent has a way of exposing some of the more insipid lines of dialogue and the grating earnestness of the characters, but the soul of the play somehow still manages to slip through. It’s a testament, really, to the power of Larson’s songwriting abilities that not even the passing of a decade or the limited directing talents of Chris Columbus can completely screw it up, though he certainly gives it a shot. I’m not sure who this guy is sleeping with, but she must wield an awful lot of power in Hollywood to be able to get the fucking director of Adventures in Babysitting the Harry Potter and now the Rent gigs. Basically, the best thing you can say about Chris Columbus is that at least he doesn’t try to get inventive; in fact, it looks as though he probably just pulled some of the set designs right off the stage production, transplanted them onto the big-screen, and told his actors to stand in front and do what they did on Broadway.
The surviving essence of the original notwithstanding, if you’ve never seen the play or listened to the soundtrack heretofore, you’re probably not going to like the movie version and a plot summary is therefore unnecessary; suffice to say, it’s about middle-class impoverishment, Puccini, AIDS, and the Lower East Side, if that sounds at all appealing to you. Columbus’ “interpretation” doesn’t really work at all without reference to the stage production and only works marginally as a tribute to Rent, the cultural artifact. For the same reason, it was probably wise to use the original cast members — even if they are pushing 40 — because most of Rent’s appeal lies with preexisting fans, who are at least treated to voices familiar to them from the soundtrack (except, thankfully, for Rosario Dawson, who is the first actress I’ve seen to render Mimi screech-less). Columbus might have also served his audience better had he employed fewer close-ups, which have a way of both deemphasizing the collective spirit of the Broadway production and proving that the over-expressive faces of stage actors do not always translate well into film (Adam Pascal, for instance, is well-suited to the image of Roger from 20 rows back; up close, however, he’s kind of creepy looking in an Eric-Stoltz-in-Mask sort of way).
In the final analysis — for fans or non-fans of the stage production — there is certainly plenty to dislike about Rent; even in its initial incarnation, the musical dialogue often felt contrived; many of the songs are hard to stomach (“The Tango Maureen,” “Today 4U”); the lip-synching is preposterous; and I can certainly see how newcomers to Rent might wonder what the hell all the fuss is about, i.e., how can anyone get so fucking worked up about a bunch of gay people on top of tables singing and dancing about having AIDS?! (Considering it now, I can only imagine how badly I would’ve excoriated Rent: The Movie had I not had the stage production as a reference point). But, in purely nostalgic terms, Rent does the trick, successfully recalling the revolutionary fervor of a time in which AIDS was a death sentence instead of a punch line and when life affirmation wasn’t just the drivel of self-help gurus. And, besides, if you don’t completely lose your shit when Tom Collins eulogizes Angel, then you’re probably the kind of bigoted person who believes that New Yorkers in the 1980s went out and got themselves some of the AIDS because “they had nothing better to do,” in which case you can jump up my ass.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.Rent / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()