Two things jump out at you from the screen presentation of Rent : New York is not what it used to be, and neither are musicals.
Rent takes place in Alphabet City, the East Village neighborhood once known for squalor and seediness and a certain lineage of rebellious music, in the pre-Giuliani era. Like the west side of West Side Story, or the Hell's Kitchen of Paul Simon's unpopular attempt, "The Capeman," it is a reference barely recognizable in the foamy gentrification of the latte era. An updating of the Puccini opera, "La Vie Boheme," Jonathan Larson's original stage work was dated from the start--New York 1996 was a millennium away from New York 1989. Nearly a decade later, it feels veritably fusty. And at least twice as cranky. Director Chris Columbus, previously proven incapable of conveying the magic of Harry Potter on celluloid, here proves even less capable of conveying any of the earnestness with which Larson so famously (if never persuasively) imbued the original. All that translates is the whine.
Rent is peopled by aspiring filmmakers, musicians, dancers, and performance artists who dabble in heroine, homosexuality, and entitlement. Few of them have jobs (the most notable exceptions: a professor and a lawyer, both conceived without an ounce of connection to the real world). Most of them have AIDS (though it's not a very intrusive AIDS; it barely interferes with their ability to run, jump, hang off railings or sing so loud their lungs are split). And none of them has any compunction about refusing to pay rent. It isn't just that they can't; they don't think they should have to. The character called upon to perform the loathsome task of collection, Benny (Taye Diggs), is the film's dastardly villain. What matter that he's an old friend who offers options and alternatives, each of which is rudely rejected? What matter that he envisions a regeneration of the area dying before his eyes, that he thinks of the future while they sing about there being nothing but today? What matter that he stands by those he cares about in times of need? The man wears a suit, for lord's sake. And he hangs around with old white men. He's just yuppie scum. Says so right there in the dialogue.
Like Diggs, most of the film's actors are reprised from the original Broadway cast--Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Alan Pascal--and in the tradition of adaptations such as Grease, they are patently too old for their roles (Pascal actually had me flashing back repeatedly to Jeff Conaway). They look great-- in some cases, amazing--but are clearly far too adult to be behaving so childishly.
The music does help to pass the time more tolerably, except when it goes braying, grinding or moaning superficially about love, death, and civil disobedience, which is, alas, two-thirds of the film. In that other third, though, the film steers clear of the franchise's trademark bathos and bombast, and lets shine a certain easy sexiness. Rosario Dawson, replacing the theatre's Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, bends and folds herself enviably, strutting around with a rarefied rasp and come-hither howl for "Light My Candle" and "Out Tonight," Jesse L. Martin heats up a graffitied subway car in "Santa Fe," and Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms (replacing Fredi Walker as Joanne to Menzel's Maureen), breathe flint and fire into the lovers' spat, "Take Me or Leave Me."
"La Vie Boheme," a sometimes rousing number, is led admirably by Anthony Rapp, but remains uneven and overlong in the final cut. In ways unintended by Larson, it becomes emblematic of the film's flaws. The more they jump on tables, bounce their booties, and flaunt their fashionable indiscretions, the more evident it becomes that bohemia is not just dead, it's literally forgotten, the romance of struggle traded in for the petulant protest of spoiled brats. And so we are led to a rather surprising irony. The film's on the wrong side of the argument. Compare the city it celebrates with the one that's taken its place, and there's only one conclusion to be drawn. Benny was right. New York's a better place now. And that's something to sing about.
©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum