Rent Review

A modern take on Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme Rent isn’t a complicated story. Set on the brink of the ‘90s we meet a group of er bohemians living in a rundown tenement in New York’s East Village struggling with AIDS eviction and creative ways to express themselves. The denizens include a budding documentary filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp); his rock musician roommate Roger (Adam Pascal); the stripper drug addict Mimi (Rosario Dawson) who lives downstairs; Mark’s ex-girlfriend edgy performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) and her new lawyer girlfriend Joanne (Tracie Thoms); street-drumming drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and his handsome boyfriend philosopher professor Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin). When their fraught way of life in their beloved ‘hood is threatened by expanding corporate gentrification orchestrated by Mark ’s former roommate Benny (Taye Diggs) the group does what we’d all like to do–sing. And sing and… Non-musical fans may need a breather but at least the songs by Jonathan Larson (the show’s young composer who died suddenly before opening night) are MTV ready and vital to the storytelling. Casting most of Rent’s original Broadway stars is definitely a plus. Menzel Rapp Heredia (who won a Tony for his role)  Diggs Martin and Pascal understand what it takes to make this story come alive and how to really belt out those songs. But the fact they are all mostly stage performers you get the feeling watching these talented thespians that they never stop wanting to give 110 percent which may come off over the top for the big screen. A seasoned film actor like Dawson (Sin City 25th Hour) is at an advantage. She understands the requisite subtleties of acting for the camera and gives a tour-de-force performance as Mimi all at once seductive sad and oh-so-tortured. Dawson is certainly one to look out for during this awards season. Wow director Chris Columbus sure is gutsy. Not only did he revive the long-stalled project from years in development limbo but he also had to live up to the high expectations of the Broadway show’s cultish fan base. Of course he isn’t a stranger to appeasing the masses having helmed the first two Harry Potter movies but ultimately with Rent Columbus turns out to be the wrong man for the job. The film is fairly static without much creative flair–and very long. Spike Lee was originally attached for the longest time. Imagine that film for a moment. Still to be fair to Columbus turning Rent into a movie is just plain difficult because it is NOT a cinematic story. It’s an opera–a good opera with lots of great pulse-pounding heart-wrenching songs but an opera nonetheless. Fans of the show or “Rent-Heads” as they are lovingly referred to should be happy with this big-screen version but once again I was left wishing I’d seen it on stage.