Rosario Dawson as Mimi Marquez
Taye Diggs as Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III
Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel Schunard
Jesse L. Martin as Thomas B. “Tom” Collins
Idina Menzel as Maureen Johnson
Adam Pascal as Roger Davis
Anthony Rapp as Mark Cohen
Tracie Thoms as Joanne Jefferson
“Rent” is a perfect example of Broadway at its cheesiest, and there’s little that anyone could have done with this dated source material to make it work as a modern movie.
In a loft in New York’s East Village, a group of artistic friends with different backgrounds and specialties offer each other support as they face poverty, crime and the debilitating effects of AIDS.
No, I haven’t seen the musical “Rent” nor am I that familiar with the songs or the story behind it, but after seeing the movie version, directed by Chris Columbus, I thank the gods of good taste that I didn’t have to suffer through this twice. That’s not to say that the late Jonathan Larson didn’t have good intentions when he based this musical around the late ’80s denizens of New York’s Alphabet City, but something has definitely been lost with the passage of time.
The cast of characters is a cross-section of the artistic bohemian types that used to inhabit New York’s less glamorous area. There’s Mark, the wannabe documentary filmmaker, and his roommate Roger, the struggling musician who used to have a band; their neighbor Mimi, the junkie stripper; Angel, the voguish she-male and Maureen, the lesbian performance artist. Over the course of the movie, we’ll find out all about them and their relationships, and maybe we might even care about them a little bit.
Most of the original cast who appeared in the Broadway musical were brought back for the movie, and that could have been the first and biggest mistake made by Columbus. Obviously, they’re all ten years older than when they first appeared in the musical and most of them look it. Because of this, most of the situations and issues they face aren’t as believable as they would be if they were young struggling artists rather than 30-something has-beens dealing with the mistakes they made in the past.
“Rent” is a New York City movie through and through, but it harks back to a time when Alphabet City was so grimy and disgusting, that most New Yorkers wouldn’t go there after dark in fear of being mugged. That’s said, Columbus’ crew has worked hard to recreate the grimy New York of yesteryear including all of its trash and graffiti, although I’m not sure anyone really needed to be reminded how bad it was.
For that matter, the original musical is pretentious enough by having all these good-looking people pretending to be struggling artist types, but seriously, if life’s so bad, why are they breaking into cheery song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat? After watching these characters whine about one thing or the other, all of a sudden, they just jump onto a table in a restaurant to do a musical number right out of “Fame.” I know that has never happened when I went to the East Village, and I had enough trouble stifling laughs every time they broke into song, because I kept remembering the hysterical spoof from “Team America” where the cast sang the catchy ditty “Everyone Has AIDS.” The movie just makes it more obvious that Larson’s musical was rife for ridicule, but the actors seem to be having way too much fun to notice how they silly they look.
The table dancing is far from the worst part of the movie, though. That would probably be the ten minutes we sit incredulously watching Idina Menzel as Maureen performing her revolutionary “art piece” that’s little more than a rip-off of Laurie Anderson. Once again, you’re given a bitter reminder of New York at its most pretentious, and when the police come to break up the performance, it’s a rare time when police brutality may be warranted.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad. Rosario Dawson is terrific as Mimi, maybe because she’s one of the two players who has done a significant amount of movies and knows how to play to the cameras rather than the people in the seats. She’s electric in her first number “Out Tonight” and even better with her ballad with Adam Pascal, “Without You.” Even as much as I was hating the movie up until that point, the duet and accompanying montage brought a tear to my eye. Taye Diggs reprises his role as Benny, a former member of the group of friends, now managing their building and forced to lock them out after they’ve not paid their rent for a year; it’s a small role that barely gives him any screen time. The other new addition, Tracie Thoms, shows that she has the strongest voice of the cast, especially in her fun duet with Idina Menzel on “Take Me or Leave Me.” Likewise, Columbus uses the abilities of cinema to do something interesting with “What You Own” as original cast members Anthony Rapp and Pascal begin the song from opposite sides of the country before reuniting at the end.
While the productions aren’t so bad, most of the songs are the type of cheesy pop-metal that was so popular on Broadway during the ’80s, mixing Queen with The Who’s “Tommy” with ’70s era Andrew Lloyd Webber. Needless to say, it sounds extremely dated, and it’s worse when you realize that it was produced by Rob Cavallo, the man behind the boards for some of Green Day’s amazing early albums. Way to give up your punk cred, dude.
The Bottom Line:
Maybe this movie musical hits too close to home or maybe it’s just too cheesy to be taken seriously, but sitting through “Rent” was a mostly painful experience. If you’re one of those “Rentheads” who loves the original musical, you might forgive the obvious problems, but it reminded me all too well why I often hate Broadway musicals and proves that lame musicals tend to make even lamer movies.