"Rent" still fits the bill

Nov. 22, 2005, midnight | By Pria Anand | 16 years, 10 months ago

Broadway show finds Hollywood success

On Friday, Nov. 11, the AMC River East theater in Chicago, Illinois, aired a one-night pre-screening of "Rent."

As a play, "Rent," an award-winning musical based on the opera "La Boheme," was simultaneously castigated as blunt and commended as revolutionary. As a movie, it's bound to draw just as much controversy from self-proclaimed "Rent Heads," aficionados of the show who are just as likely to be wowed by the film as they are to be frustrated by the changes made in its adaptation.

The movie opens with its eight protagonists spotlighted in an empty theater and belting out trademark number "Seasons of Love" with impressive panache; it's the perfect beginning to a show that still seems better adapted to the stage than the screen. While the movie is incredibly compelling, musically staggering and visually stunning, something was lost in its translation to film.

"Rent" the play carefully toed the line between moving and over-the-top. A chronicle of what it means to be young, conflicted and marginalized in America, it was real and humorous enough to ensure that even the most emotionally overwhelming plotlines came across as honest and powerful rather than just manipulative.

As a movie, "Rent" still adeptly juggles the intertwining lives of eight impoverished radicals living in New York City. Mark (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring film-maker, is wrestling with his conscience over whether or not to accept a corporate job in the interest of escaping eviction by his landlord, Benny (Taye Diggs). Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark's ex-girlfriend, is trying to pull together a performance to protest the forcible removal of homeless people from a neighboring plot of land. Joanne (Tracie Thoms), Maureen's new girlfriend, is struggling to make her relationship with Maureen work in spite of seemingly insurmountable differences. Roger (Adam Pascal), a musician in search of inspiration, and Mimi (Rosario Dawson), his neighbor, are trying to cope with the baggage they've both carried into their budding relationship. Collins (Jesse Martin), Mark's and Roger's roommate, and Angel (Wilson Heredia), his lover, are battling AIDS.

It's almost impossible to imagine so many characters developing as anything other than superficial in a 135-minute film, especially since almost all of them are dynamic. It was a problem in the play, but it's compounded in the movie, where some of the characters' developments are neglected in the interest of time. Most notably, Benny, who undergoes a catharsis of his own in the play, becomes the stereotype of a yuppie in the movie, just another "three-piece suit," a change that's hypocritical in a show about shunning class distinctions.

The notable exceptions, interestingly enough, are also the two most static characters, both played by veterans of the stage show. Heredia may be the worst lip-syncer in the movie, but his portrayal lends Angel—scripted as a vehicle for others' realizations rather than an independent character—a depth that could easily have been lacking. As Collins, Martin is similarly outstanding, whetting his acting chops to an extent that his time on "Law and Order" denied him; he's sympathetic and funny, swaggering when the occasion calls for it and mature and restrained when tragedy strikes.

In fact, in spite of the characters' shortcomings, most of the cast is exceptional, bringing the powerhouse vocals that put the play on the map to the screen. Even newcomers to the show, like Dawson and Thoms, don't disappoint, imbuing their songs with sincerity and passion and, in Thom's case, even outshining their costars. And while some of the actors' performances don't play out as well on the screen—especially Menzel, whose over-the-top delivery is far better suited to the stage—most are appropriately nuanced. Dawson, in particular, has come a long way from "Josie and the Pussycats"; her rendition of Mimi is incredibly compelling, vulnerable and courageous by turn and drawing viewers into a character that might otherwise have been unsympathetic and irritating.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole doesn't share this subtlety. In order to make "Rent" palatable as a film, its producers converted portions of songs to dialogue and added in retrospectives and heavy-handed close-ups, presumably to heighten the drama and facilitate plot development. The problem is that drama is something that neither the original nor the movie version of "Rent" lacks. Its plot is incredibly human and powerful, and cinematic tricks merely dilute its effectiveness. Turning songs into dialogue often loses the humor that kept the original from becoming melodrama, while close-ups and flashbacks make a story that was once gripping seem almost hackneyed at points.

But none of these flaws can obscure the camaraderie and compassion the original had to offer; the protagonists and their relationships are still engaging, and their crises are still potent. More than "la vie boheme," the nineties or even living in the shadow of AIDS, "Rent" is about characters trying to exist in the space between regrettable actions and living in the moment, between surviving and selling out, and those struggles continue to play out around awkward montages and thin character development.

"Rent" will be released on Nov. 23 and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and strong language.

Pria Anand. Pria is a senior. She loves Silver Chips, movies and, most likely, you. More »

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