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Not Even For Free
Rent Buries ‘80s Radical Chic
By Cole Smithey

Jonathan Larsen’s Pulitzer-winning musical gets a faithful treatment from director Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire") in its transition to the big screen, with all but two of its original cast members appearing. However, that’s not to say that the stereotyped story or overblown songs are improved on in any way. It’s still a navel-gazing story about an artsy fartsy group of late ‘80s East Village kids who don’t want to pay rent on their colossal loft space apartment so they can compare notes about AIDS and their unproven talents as artists.

It doesn’t help matters that the cast has aged 10 years beyond their characters’ ages so that they no longer fit the mold of anachronistic bohemians. Set in Manhattan’s bad old days of 1989 when the Big Apple was broke, "Rent" finds wanna-be filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) and his AIDS suffering singer/songwriter roommate Roger (Adam Pascal) sharing a cold Christmas eve in their enormous but unheated loft. Mark inexplicably carries around a handheld 16mm camera from the ‘50s to make a heart-on-sleeve student film about the mean streets of New York. This fact alone is enough to clarify why Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) abandoned him to start a lesbian affair with an attorney named Joanne (Tracie Thoms).

Mark whines because Maureen left him. Roger whines because his ex-girlfriend died of a heroin overdose after giving him AIDS. The losers get a dose of inspiration when former roommate Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) belatedly appears, after getting mugged in front of their apartment, with his savior – a transvestite named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). No one wants to pay rent to their former roommate-turned-landlord Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs) even if he’s offering a rent free ride if they’ll stop Maureen from performing a one-woman protest show that turns out to be more on a par with Lydia Lunch than Patti Smith.

It’s in this troubled social milieu that director Columbus insists on using fake snow on a sound stage as the background for an endless stream of songs that grow old by the film’s halfway point. The inauthentic detail hits an apex when Tom Collins springs into singing "Santa Fe" on a subway car set that looks nothing like the ratty subway cars of the late ‘80s. The poorly filmed scene brings to high relief the awkward nature of the vapid song about opening a restaurant in Santa Fe, when the characters here are so staunch about not making money.

Rosario Dawson makes the most of her song-and-dance spotlight as a drug addict strip club dancer on a lusty rampage with the song "Out Tonight." Dawson’s howling phrasing of the word "out" pays homage to Warren Zevon’s "Werewolves Of London," and injects the movie with a singular shot of genuine rock ‘n roll feeling. The other musical high point occurs at the beginning of the film when the cast stands on stage unencumbered by sets and sing the play’s well-crafted recurrent song "Seasons Of Love."

"Rent" is a wet blanket musical compared to the likes of "West Side Story" or "Cabaret." It doesn’t even hold a candle to "Chicago," which director Rob Marshall worked wonders with in his 2002 film version. By the time "Rent" first appeared on Broadway in 1996, the time that it alluded to was long past. The sloppy ’80s musical and fashion sensibilities chafe at its theme of malcontents taking on the corporate world by squatting in squalor with drugs and bad art as their weapons of choice. The story is about a group of people who take rather than give.

Rated PG-13, 135 mins. (C-)  (Two Stars)

November 29, 2005 in Western | Permalink