Review: “Rent”

“Rent” is a solid musical stuck in not so much a bad movie as rather a bland one. Utilising the formula he applied to the first two “Harry Potter” movies, Director Chris Columbus slavishly adapts Jonathan Larson’s original 1996 play to the point that he’s forgotten to craft an engrossing movie in which to convey said material.

The result is, much like last year’s more lavish (and leaden) “The Phantom of the Opera”, an admirable misfire in the genre – it gets all the notes right but lacks both cinematic style or emotional heft that has made such films as “Chicago”, “Grease” or “The Sound of Music” into the classics they’ve become. Ardent fans of the material will probably be happy with what’s onscreen (having already emotionally anchored themselves to these characters) but newcomers will be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

To be fair part of the disconnect of “Rent” is the passage of time that has passed which has made the once very edgy subject matter seem anachronistic. The specter of AIDS has taken a back seat, alternate lifestyles (gay, lesbian, transvestitism) whilst still sidelined have become more accepted, and the idea of rebelling against the system has gone from the economic to the more politically orientated these days. This wouldn’t be a problem if an effort was made to shoot the film as essentially a modern period piece (ala “Grease”) but neither Columbus or screenwriter Stephen Chbosky dare tamper with the very time and place-specific material.

Thus Larson’s clunky story remains somewhat of a jumble in film narrative form – a few songs have been translated into dialogue scenes but these are merely bridges to connect one number to another with little effort on the part of establishing any dramatic impact. The various songs and their messages of hope and a better tomorrow still shine through (“No Day But Today” is still a truly great number), but the dangers of the world (whether it be eviction, death or selling out) have no teeth here so we have little desire to emotionally invest in these characters as their ‘struggle to live’ seems easier than they claim.

“Rent” was arguably one of the first hit musicals to deal with stark realism and how harsh life can be for those on the sidelines. Yet the numbers and locations in the film feel so obviously staged, its darker elements of drug addiction and AIDS so truncated or softened to suit a mainstream crowd that it plays out as pure fantasy. In order to make the numbers more involving there’s a few attempts to give them each a distinct visual element. Some work, most notably the multiple partner “Tango Maureen” sequence which at least entirely succumbs to the fantasy, others allow for impressive physical hijinks like Angel’s dancing/percussion number in a Santa suit. Many however fall flat on their face, most notably those using the old “Fame” trick of dancing in streets or on tables.

There seems to be many odd counterpoints which undermine the movie. Music producer Rob Cavallo’s powerful musical tones are impressive but so loud that a lot of the more subtle lyrics are drowned out by the noise. Howard Cummings’ production design is definitely on the dark and dank side to suit the grisly conditions our cast always sings about, yet these people who are so poor that they can’t afford food certainly know how to get their hands on designer clothes, soap and hair gel. The numbers involve many extras on a large scale at times and yet the visuals are always decidedly ordinary or unengrossing.

In one interesting manuever, much of the original Broadway cast reprise their roles in the film – something which doesn’t entirely work. Each have got their characters down, but more than few certainly seem a bit long in the tooth to be so lacking in direction or drive. Still, they do some solid work with only Menzel, Diggs and to a lesser extent Pascal not entirely comfortable (whereas Dawson, Thoms, Martin and Heredia all work well in their respective roles). Sarah Silverman has a great cameo as well in one of the film’s few dialogue scenes.

Despite some more elaborate window dressing, “Rent” the film is pretty much “Rent” the theatrical experience minus the audience. It really does feel like watching someone’s camcorder taped version of a theatre performance, something which those who experienced it in person will probably get a nostalgic feeling for but for those of us who haven’t, it comes off as impersonal and cold.

Converting a musical into the medium of film is not a simple cut and paste job, it requires an understanding of the differences between the audiences and the ability to change and adapt the material in order to fit on the cinematic landscape. Larson’s material still shines through it all, but for something so different and unique in its time, the film version is a decidedly paint by numbers approach.