Not sinceThe Phantom of the Opera has a musical turned into a secular religion in quite the way of Jonathan Larson’s Rent—a success story made all the more tragi-romantic by the fact that Larson died of an aortic aneurism, at the age of 35, the day before Rent’s off-Broadway premiere. As it nears a decade of residence at the Nederlander Theatre, where it has played nearly 4,000 performances, Rentis now the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, and it continues to draw a roughly 75 percent capacity crowd on a weekly basis. Legions of fans swear by the thing—just as people live for John Grisham, or consider The Shawshank Redemptionone of the greatest movies ever made. And last I checked, there was no legislation pending before Congress that would curtail such behavior—though perhaps there should be.
I’ve never seen Renton stage, but after watching the long-in-the-works film version directed by Chris Columbus, I felt as though I had. That’s because Columbus, late of the first two Harry Potterfilms, isn’t the kind of director who brings a fertile cinematic imagination to a project. Rather, when he takes on a sacrosanct pop-culture object like Potter or Rent, he labors to preserve its molecular infrastructure, no matter that the work was originally conceived for a different medium. So, just as Columbus’ Pottermovies never fully loosed themselves from the written page, there’s scarcely a moment in Rent—save for one production number, “The Tango Maureen,” which is lively enough to suggest that someone else directed it—that doesn’t feel terminally stagebound. Columbus doesn’t direct scenes so much as he records them, in long, meandering crane and Steadicam shots, as if he were documenting a live stage show for future television broadcast. Even when he films in real New York City locations, he renders them as inert as a studio back lot. If the great movie musicals are the ones that transport us to some heady superreality, the only place Renttakes us to is the Nederlander Theatre.
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So, what exactly is Columbus preserving? Based in part on La Bohme—you know, that famous opera by Baz Luhrmann—Rentobserves 525,600 minutes in the lives of the healthiest-looking, most highly functional junkies, strippers, AIDS patients and starving artists who populate the cold-water flats of New York City’s Lower East Side, circa 1989. There’s Mark (Anthony Rapp), our narrator and an aspiring filmmaker, who resolves early on to “start shooting without a script”; his roommate Roger (Adam Pascal), a leather-jacketed singer-songwriter reeling from his girlfriend’s suicide and occasionally plucking out a few bars of “Quando Me’n Vo’soletta” on his guitar; and “computer-age philosophy” professor Collins (Jesse L. Martin) who, despite being the most gainfully employed of the bunch, hasn’t lost touch with his neighborhood roots. The same can’t be said, alas, of Benny (Taye Diggs), a onetime local who married a rich real-estate developer’s daughter and now plans to turn Mark and Roger’s loft into “a state-of-the-art digital interactive studio.” Whatever the hell that means.
The characters in Rentsuffer for their art—we never really find out if any of them are actually talented, but we’re asked to believe that they’re all brilliant—and they suffer in other ways, too. The whole movie is like a paean to the nobility of suffering. Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the aforementioned artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), has recently ditched him for an attorney named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Roger and Collins are both HIV-positive—something which, in Roger’s case, becomes fodder for a song, “I Should Tell You.” Fortunately for Roger, the object of his desire, the beautiful but tragic Mimi (Rosario Dawson), is HIV-positive herself—and a junkie and a stripper to boot, which I suppose makes her the winner of the Alphabet City triple crown. And just to make sure he has all his bases covered, Larson throws in one interracial lesbian engagement party, a wisdom-spouting homeless prophet, and a Hispanic, cross-dressing street performer unsubtly named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). No oppressed minority or special-interest group is left unturned (save perhaps for paraplegic albino hermaphrodites). Was Larson really hoping to have a career on Broadway, or was that just going to be his springboard into politics?
As in Phantom, the music is staggeringly, brain-meltingly terrible—loud rock anthems and power ballads of a sort that makes Jon Bon Jovi seem like, well, Puccini. The cast members, who are supposed to be playing characters in their late teens and early twenties, don’t look a day younger than 35; and there’s not a character on screen who has more dimension than a cardboard backdrop. You also don’t have to think too long or hard to come up with a list of deeper, more honest studies of la vie bohme—my own mind immediately drifted to Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, with its unflinching portrait of emotional and chemical dependencies. (By comparison, in Rent, Mimi’s entire odyssey from addict to withdrawal to re-addiction is condensed into one montage sequence.) But Rentisn’t trying to be honest; it’s selling a fantasy, with the emphasis on selling. Although Larson supposedly based Renton people he knew, the whole enterprise feels as shallow, impersonal and opportunistic as one of those Hollywood action blockbusters designed to be easily translated into other languages and cultural idiom. True to form, the stage version of Renthas conquered the globe, playing in such far-flung destinations as Africa and South Korea. Surely, the film will too. For the considerably cheaper price of a movie ticket, new audiences can now be showered with such meaningless, up-with-people aphorisms as “No day but today,” “Take me for what I am” and “How about love?” They can be reminded that, no matter how grim things get, they’ll work themselves out for the best (or how, failing that, they’ll become martyrs who inspire all their friends to live their lives to the fullest). And they can rest assured that by swallowing this hooey, they are somehow expressing their own individuality, just like all the lemmings in their Che Guevara T-shirts. Rentwants to teach the world to sing all right, but only if the world buys a Coca-Cola first.
RENT WAS Directed by CHRIS COLUMBUS; Screenplay by STEPHEN CHBOSKY, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson; Produced by JANE ROSENTHAL, ROBERT DE NIRO, COLUMBUS and MARK RADCLIFFE. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.