A Low-Rent Imitation
I was lucky enough to see Rent on Broadway back in 1997, when I was just a wide-eyed hillbilly youth on a field trip with my high school Spanish class. At the time, the play perfectly described the life I’d never even imagined I wanted up to that point. After two hours of 525,600 minutes each, I promised myself I would become a Greenwich Village bohemian. I would read free verse at open-mic poetry nights. I would read the Village Voice. I would ice skate at Rockefeller Center, but ironically. I would organize protests. I would spend all my money on scarves.
Now, of course, I’m a hopelessly uncool 25-year-old journalist and part-time film critic who has seen Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle three times (as of this writing). I own two scarves, and I only wear one of them. I do, however, rent my apartment, so I consider my credibility damaged but ultimately intact.
On the other hand, the film version of Rent is directed by the guy who made Home Alone, so who’s worried?
The film follows a group of young artists for a year in the early 1990s, several of whom are homosexuals living with AIDS. Throughout the film, the group battles poverty, eviction, addiction, and disease while taking refuge from the awful world in each other’s presence. Despite all the criticism to follow, I do think it’s a beautiful story.
The film is light on dialogue, with most events instead unfolding in song. So right up front, let me confess that I was never very impressed by Rent’s soundtrack. A handful of songs ‘— ‘“Seasons of Love,’” ‘“What You Own,’” ‘“Will I?’” ‘— are outstanding, but too many of them sound cheesy, processed, and overwrought, like someone’s idea of what a rock song might sound like if they’d spent their life listening to nothing but show tunes.
This is forgivable in the stage show, which featured a live band onstage, lending a bit of spontaneity to the more forgettable songs. The film version can’t rely on that. ‘“I’ll Cover You,’” ‘“One Song Glory’” and too many others are nakedly mediocre.
On the whole, Rent suffers from director Chris Columbus’ forthright, overly literal interpretation of the source material (an aesthetic he demonstrated on the first two Harry Potter films). His stalwart adherence to creator Jonathan Larson’s vision might qualify him as a safe, practical director, but I can’t think of a single trademark of a Columbus film, except maybe the noticeable absence of one. Since Rent’s characters are so enamored with their own individuality, it’s a sad commentary that Columbus is afraid to add any creative flourish of his own.
The presentation of the songs ‘— over two maudlin hours’ worth ‘— is painfully dull. In Rob Marshall’s superior Chicago, the viewer is swept deliriously between music and drama by seamless, interesting transitions. In Rent, Columbus simply ends most of the songs with a simple fade to black, followed by the next song, followed by another fade to black, ad infinitum. Occasionally the monotony is broken by applause from an onscreen audience, underscoring how awkward the transition from stage to screen has been. ‘“Tango: Maureen,’” the only exception, is presented with some bona fide flare, but generally Columbus doesn’t have his actors do much besides stomp around their spacious, run-down lofts and gesture at each other wildly.
The performers ‘— who are largely imported from the original stage cast ‘— do an admirable job, and it’s clear the ensemble possesses immense talent. But because there’s nothing new or fresh about the way Columbus presents them, it begs the question of why the play was made into a film in the first place (as Alan Moore once observed, film shouldn’t be the one art form to which other mediums aspire; to wit, sometimes a good play should just be a good play).
The blame can’t all be laid at the director’s feet. However genuine its emotion, Rent furiously pummels the audience with its point of view, making the viewer feel almost guilty for anything less than fawning praise. It also insists you buy what it’s selling as an all-or-nothing proposition, which quickly becomes annoying. For example, I completely agree that people with AIDS deserve love, compassion, and ‘— hey ‘— science, in the form of a cure. I also find deplorable the continued marginalization of the gay community, and wish people would stop referring to homosexuality as a ‘choice’ or, perhaps more insultingly, a ‘lifestyle.’
But since I’m no longer a teenager, I’ve come to resent Rent’s insistence that the world is divided between Artists and Corporate Sell-Outs. It’s a sophomoric suggestion, and it exists in the same fantasy world in which people turn out in droves to see a performance artist wax poetic in a Chelsea warehouse.
A story that pretends to confront real issues in a realistic fashion can’t have it both ways, and Rent’s characters are too archetypal to be completely human. Though some of its quieter moments are poignant, the film amounts to a pointless exercise that emphasizes the weakest aspects of a mostly good play.
Gently correct Glen Baity’s thinking by e-mailing him at email@example.com.