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RENT
U.S. Release Date: November 23, 2005
Distributor: Sony (Revolution)
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: Stephen Chbosky
Producer: Chris Columbus
Cast: Rosario Dawson
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (mature thematic materials involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language)

1990s Musical Misses and Hits
by Scott Holleran

Putting a pop rock sensibility to Giacomo Puccini's incomparable opera, La Boheme, Jonathan Larson's stage musical, Rent, is a mere smattering of much better work of art. The motion picture adaptation is mixed, hitting bottom when one of the leads is standing on a cliff belting it out over a blaring electric guitar in the middle of what looks like the Grand Canyon. But, for what it is, Rent pays its way.

Director Chris Columbus (Stepmom, Home Alone) captures New York's starving artist underbelly, with all sorts of strange characters—an only-in-New-York mixture of drug addicts, HIV-positive transvestites and lesbian lawyers in love. Examined closely, their stories don't hitch, and most of Rent feels as fake as cross-dressing Angel's (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) blonde wig. One by one, in musical numbers served straight up, Rent introduces its band of bohemians: finger-snapping Angel, geeky Mark (Anthony Rapp) and his roommate, musician Roger (Adam Pascal), Roger's crush, needy Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a friendly face named Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and a couple of funky lesbians (Tracie Thoms and Idina Manzel).

Why anyone would care about this band of hedonists—singing "La Vie Boheme" on tabletops as their tragic tales merge—is an open question but, for those who have lived an artist's life, the late Larson's music—notably, the haunting "Will I," playful "Light My Candle," and "Take Me or Leave Me"—strikes a chord in the warm glow of Columbus' sheen.

Trouble is, brief bursts don't propel what passes for a plot, and this one bounces like a bad check. The misfits appear to converge around a big protest against an ex-mate who's gone legit—Taye Diggs, playing a businessman kind enough to let them freeload for awhile—only to wind up attending some pretentious performance trash apparently aimed at opposing the concept of paying rent. Mr. Columbus makes no attempt to explain.

He jumps around, from the movie's center of action—Roger's and Mark's squatter apartment—to the street, and, as a bohemian rhapsody, none of it is terribly compelling. Too clean cut for the snarling nihilists cruising today's street protests, too filthy and afflicted to relate to, Rent spreads itself thin. Though director Columbus achieves a few artful transitions, he plays it safe, treating the material as sacrosanct (the answering machine joke does not age well) when it requires more intimacy or urgency and ending up with multiple climaxes, bits and pieces, some of which work, more of which do not.

The original Broadway cast members are fine, however, newcomer Rosario Dawson is sensuous and mesmerizing as drug-tripping stripper Mimi, luring Roger (Adam Pascal, flat in the role) into her exotic underworld. As happy-go-lucky Tom Collins, Jesse L. Martin could light up half of Manhattan with his wide grin and easy manner. Charismatic Tracie Thoms stands out as the responsible, dapper Joanne Jefferson, devoted to flirt queen Maureen.

While Chris Columbus' Rent is too contrived to be universal—and, ironically, after an opening with "Seasons of Love," the musical's main theme is practically lost—he almost makes something of it.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Rent on two discs includes an entertaining commentary from director Chris Columbus, joined by two male leads—the actors who portray roommates Roger (Pascal) and Mark (Rapp)—and the five-part No Day But Today, an exhaustive two-hour documentary that can be consumed as a whole or by each chapter.

Rent is chronicled from creator Jonathan Larson's childhood and his interview with the New York Times before the stage musical's off-Broadway opening night—the eve of Larson's tragic death—to the casting, music and movie. Deleted scene standouts include the snipped song "Goodbye Love," in which diseased Mimi bids farewell to her lover before he drives off to Santa Fe, and an unused, idealized ending that neatly bookends the picture's opening.

The commentary deals with critics head-on without being defensive. The threesome poke fun at consistency errors, point out a barely noticeable moment when Joanne grabs a piece of Maureen's behind, and they discuss audience reactions; apparently, an interracial, homosexual kiss sent some running for the exits. They kick back and laugh at bad hair and looking like a Bon Jovi video—yet always with respect for what the material is trying to express.


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