Chris Columbus, the director of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, seems like an odd choice to direct the film adaptation of an edgy, somewhat avante-garde musical like Rent. Unfortunately, the results tend to bear out the first impression created by this news. While the music and performances live up to the expectations formed by the Broadway play, Columbus’s direction fails to impress. His cinematography and staging tend toward the pedestrian, more appropriate to a beer commercial than a bohemian musical.
The story hews close to the structure of the original play, although with some trims to make room for more conventional dialogue scenes, a creative decision that some fans of the original show may have issues with. It’s still based on Puccini‘s opera, La Bohème, and still about a group of bohemian friends living in New York’s Alphabet City neighborhood. Roger (Adam Pascal) is an HIV-positive songwriter who contracted the virus from his heroin-addicted girlfriend, who recently died of AIDS. He wants to write one great song before he dies. His roommate, Mark (Anthony Rapp), is a filmmaker shooting a free-form documentary about life in the village. His girlfriend, Maureen (Idina Menzel), has just left him for another woman.
Their friend Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a gay college professor, is mugged while returning to the Village for Christmas. He’s found and cared for by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a local drag queen on her way to her HIV support group. That’s handy, since Collins is HIV-positive, too.
The backstory comes from Mark and Roger’s former roommate, Benny (Taye Diggs), who’s married well enough to end up as their landlord. After a year of letting them and their neighbors live rent-free, he’s now demanding they pay up. Benny has plans to build a new cyber-cafe in a lot now used by homeless. Maureen is staging a performance protest against the project and Benny has a proposal for Mark and Roger. Stop Maureen’s protest and the rent is free again.
After a neighborhood rent protest, Roger meets up with Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a stripper with a smack habit and, yes, HIV. (If this neighborhood seems to have a higher HIV infection rate than the poorest parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re not far off). Meanwhile, Mark discovers common ground with Joanne (Tracie Thoms), Maureen’s new lover, namely their mutual exasperation about life with Maureen.
One change from the stage production is that the movie is set during a specific time period, namely the year following Christmas, 1989. This leads to some serious anachronisms, specifically Benny’s cyber-cafe, a concept unknown before the mid-nineties, and references to nineties touchstones like Thelma and Louise and the Oklahoma City bombing.
Another problem is that, rather than opening up the staging, the movie camera seems to hem it in at times. The dialogue scenes also turn the groundbreaking rock opera of the Broadway show into a fairly conventional movie musical. The attempt to adapt the story to a more standard cinematic narrative structure also seems to have turned the last part of the movie into a highlight reel rather than an organic part of the narrative.
This film version uses most of the original cast from the 1996 Broadway production. Only Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson are new. Unfortunately, time has not stood still and while you might get away with that on stage, the movie camera is less forgiving. Dawson and Thoms are the correct age, which only highlights the difference between them and their co-stars.
All that being said, the music has made the transition more or less intact and has lost little of its impact. If you saw the play four times, like my brother and his wife, you’ll probably enjoy the movie, but you will notice something missing.