Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martin, and others
It’s one of the weaker numbers in Rent, but the song “Take Me or Leave Me” is still a good illustration of what sort of movie Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) has made of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-, Tony-, and Obie-winning 1996 musical: one that will become, at the very least, a cult hit akin to the smarter and edgier Hedwig and the Angry Inch, even though it’s too weird (read: gay) for the red-staters and probably too smarmy and overemotional for the literati. The story of a tumultuous holiday season and the resulting year in the life of a group of 20-something, boho, starving artist-types in New York City, Rent became a hit through a strange combination of word-of-mouth, slavish devotion, and Larson’s sudden, tragic death on the eve of the show’s first preview performance. The film is an adaptation of the stage play, which is itself a rock opera version of Puccini’s La Bohème set in New York’s East Village in the early ’90s. The play’s huge success helped make stars out of the original core cast members, almost all of whom reprise their roles in the movie. The worldwide cultural phenomenon that Rent became and its subsequent acceptance into Broadway history was ironic, considering the play was ostensibly a celebration of all things countercultural, as shown especially in “La Vie Bohème,” a listy, name-checking number (sample lyric: “Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa/Carmina Burana“) that finishes the first act of the play. Here, the song serves as a peak in a film that spends much of its running time building to what feels like an early climax, leaving viewers spent to the point where maybe they’ll be just glossy-eyed enough to absorb the love and positivity of the last 30 minutes while ignoring the fact that a good chunk of the “message” is the kind of trite pap you’d expect the owner of a “Hang in There!” kitten poster to take as deep philosophy. But the feeling behind the play’s lyrics is anything but ersatz, and if there’s a director who knows how to deftly spoon-feed sentiment, it’s Columbus. Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire were highly watchable (if emotionally manipulative) family flicks that adults could endure and kids could understand. With Rent, Columbus takes on more adult themes (AIDS, heroin addiction, homosexuality, poverty) but still gives them that Christmas morning sparkle. This works both with him and against him (after all, the entire first half of Rent is set on Christmas Eve); one of the first musical numbers in the movie (“Rent”) features a fine, blood-raising spectacle of multiple floors of tenants on an entire city block setting their eviction notices on fire and hurling them out the windows. Columbus and screenplay writer Stephen Chbosky stick closely to Larson’s original script (although the movie contains straight dialogue, the entire play is sung), and at times sorting through the melodies to piece together the story may be a bit of a challenge for those not acquainted with the characters. Sure, it’s a Hollywood version of city bohemia: when wayward nightclub stripper Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is carried to the loft after being found passed out on a bench in Central Park, for example, she looks awfully dewy for a homeless junkie with AIDS. But overall, even passing fans of the play (or Broadway musicals in general) will probably be happy with the adaptation. The singing and acting are as heartfelt and evocative as ever, and even though the returning cast members are into their mid-30s, the age difference isn’t jarring. Thirty-year-old starving artists aren’t so unimaginable, and the movie’s mantra, “no day but today,” which is repeated over, and over … and over, doesn’t date. Take the smarm … or leave it.