Movie Information

Genre: Musical
Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin
Rated: PG-13

There were moments in Rent where I was convinced that “525,600 minutes” wasn’t a lyric, but the actual running time of the film. And yet there were also moments — even sequences — that I found myself liking. However, I fear the latter have fled my brain in the intervening days, so that my lasting impression is one of being annoyed by the movie’s overriding sense of incredible phoniness.

No, I haven’t seen the play, so I’m certainly not a Rent-head. Neither was I familiar with the score when I went in. Now, I do not intend to see the play, nor become better acquainted with the songs. I do, however, better understand why the show is made light of by John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (mostly as the Broadway musical cliche of the moment) and more viciously parodied by the South Park boys in Team America.

I hesitate to apply the word “phony” to the Rent‘s so-called rock songs, if only because I hate seeing rock music — as amazing an amalgamation of diverse elements as can be imagined — hemmed in by critics who make claims along the lines of Dave Marsh’s assertion that the use of “cocktail piano” music on David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane attests to Bowie’s basic “distrust” of rock. But the largely unmemorable songs (“Seasons of Love” is an exception, if only because they beat you over the head with it) do strike me as ersatz rock music at best, a kind of basic show tune goosed into a rockish sound by sheer amplification. Whether this seemed quite as obvious in the late Jonathan Larson’s stage version, I don’t know. Regardless, Larson did rhyme “cautious” with “nauseous,” so he still has much to answer for.

Possibly the music would feel more real if the characters did. Even leaving out the idea of using most of the original cast — causing the exuberant youthfulness of the show’s Bohemian artists to look more like 35-year-olds suffering from arrested development — the movie offers us wannabe filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp, A Beautiful Mind), who wouldn’t pass muster as a first-year film student at a community college. Not only is he apparently incapable of loading film into his vintage 16mm Bolex without getting it light-struck, he doesn’t even know enough to disengage and lock down the winding crank while shooting. No wonder his resulting movies look like they were made on an 8mm Brownie obtained from a Green Stamp redemption center.

Then there’s rock musician Roger (Adam Pascal, School of Rock), who never writes a song, but who, in flashback, seems to have been a Billy Idol wannabe, and is now growing his hair out in an effort to become Roger Daltrey (or possibly Michael Bolton, to judge by the sound). Unfortunately, his hair got stuck at a point where he looks distractingly like Jeff Conaway on Taxi.

To this we add Mimi (Rosario Dawson, Sin City), a strangely healthy-looking heroin-addicted stripper with AIDS who dances at New York’s only strip joint where no one ever actually disrobes. The less said about performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel, Kissing Jessica Stein) the better. After 30 seconds of her sub-Laurie Anderson multimedia-protest venture, I was praying for Karen Finley to show up bearing a load of yams … with instructions on where Maureen should put them.

That brings us to the film’s central problem: insisting on showing us what its late-in-the-day, long-in-the-tooth Bohemians create in their artistic endeavors. When we see Mark’s moviemaking or hear Roger’s attempts at music or are subjected to Maureen’s performance, it’s hard not to think that the world lost three at least passable accountants when this trio opted to become artists. And that’s clearly not what the film wants. We’re supposed to be enchanted by the sacrifices these people are making for their artistic ideals. Instead, we’re confronted with a lot of self-indulgent poseurs who are all bent out of shape because their landlord (Taye Diggs, Chicago) wants them to (gasp!) pay rent.

The blame for all this, of course, goes back to Puccini’s La Boheme and its source material, Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger. Both also romanticized poverty and the whole starving-artist shtick — something that works better as full-blown opera or set in a much earlier time (see Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! for an effective use of the latter). But Rent‘s bringing the story up to date (or at least up to the late 1980s) and substituting HIV for consumption turns the conceit into something that just feels dated and clever rather than romantic.

It doesn’t help that director Chris Columbus seems convinced that a lot of flashiness applied willy-nilly will overcome all obstacles. His camera rides around endlessly in impressive crane shots while he fills the screen with images he saw in other people’s movies. The business of this apparent city block full of failed playwrights and tunesmiths burning their unsold works for heat and then mystifyingly dropping the flaming compositions to the street (so much for warmth) makes for a dynamic image. It looked even better in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, where it actually made sense.

Milos Forman captured a splendidly exuberant moment in his film of Hair when Treat Williams jumped up on the table at a posh party. Columbus, on the other hand, is so besotted with table-hopping that it happens every few minutes and you end up marveling at the amazing structural integrity of every stick of furniture in Manhattan. The “Tango Maureen” sequence mostly serves to show what a brilliant piece of filmmaking the “Roxanne Tango” in Moulin Rouge! really was. In Rent, Maureen enters the scene for her performance piece astride a motorcycle a la Meatloaf in Rocky Horror, but, alas, doesn’t break into “Hot Patootie.”

In a sometimes actually moving memorial service for the show’s emblematic transvestite, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Flawless), we’re given a story where he confronted a skinhead by telling him, “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.” This is supposed to show how witty and brave he was. All it told me was that he’d seen Antonio Fargas give the same riposte in Michael Schultz’s Car Wash.

And so it goes — and goes and goes for 135 minutes. Sure, Rent has got a lot of energy and get-up-and-go, but where is all that “go” going to? Apart from heading straight for a laughably “happy” ending that’s even more unbelievable than the spurious emotions that precede it, the film is not going much of anywhere.

Is there an audience for this? Well, it will probably appeal to the already converted Rent crowd, but I doubt it will find much in the way of new adherents. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality, and for some strong language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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