Fri, Feb 24, 2006 - Page 16 News List

`Rent' the film gets a new lease on life

By A.O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Ever since it opened in 1996, Rent, Jonathan Larson's rock 'n' roll updating of La Boheme, has inspired passionate ador-ation, as well as its share of derision. The lyrics to one of its frenetic, show-stopping songs celebrate the idea of "being an us -- for once -- instead of a them," and the world around Rent may be similarly divisible, into those whose hearts beat faster as soon as the lights go down, and those whose heads begin to ache before the first note has even sounded.

Approaching Chris Columbus' film adaptation, which reunites most of the original Broadway cast to belt out Larson's lung-stretching songs about love, art, real estate and AIDS, I was inclined toward the latter category. Two hours later, I was pleased (and somewhat surprised) to find myself an us, for once, instead of a them. Some aesthetic objections still stand -- on screen as onstage, Rent is often dramatically jumbled and musically muddled -- but every time the film seemed ready to tip into awfulness, the sneer on my lips was trumped by the lump in my throat.

Some of the performers look a little old for their parts but nonetheless bring the ardent conviction of young strivers to the material, which is just what it needs. The characters, after all, are a diverse collection of young strivers themselves, living on Avenue A in the long-ago year of 1989.

Mark (Anthony Rapp) is an aspiring filmmaker recently dumped by Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist who has taken up with a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Mark's roommate, Roger (Adam Pascal), is a musician and a recovering addict who lost one lover to AIDS and is therefore reluctant to get involved with Mimi (Rosario Dawson, like Thoms a new addition to the cast), an exotic dancer who lives downstairs. AIDS also shadows the otherwise perfect love between Tom (Jesse Martin), a semi-employed philosophy instructor, and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a sweet, tough transvestite. Popping in every now and then is Benny (Taye Diggs), another old pal who owns the building where Roger, Mimi and Mark live and who represents the twin specters of gentrification and generational sell-out.

Film Notes:

Rent

Directed by: Chris Columbus

Starring: Rosario Dawson (Mimi), Taye Diggs (Benny), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), Jesse L. Martin (Tom Collins), Idina Menzel (Maureen), Adam Pascal (Roger), Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen)

Running time: 135 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today


In telling their entwined stories, Columbus has managed a feat similar to the one he pulled off with the first two Harry Potter movies: he has taken a source that is fiercely and jealously loved by its core fans and refrained from messing it up.

Rent is nothing if not earnest -- a full-throated, breathless defense of naive idealism and unapologetic joie de vivre in the face of death -- and the slightest whisper of knowingness or cynicism would spoil it. But a cameo from the smarty-pants shock comedian Sarah Silverman notwithstanding, Columbus' movie believes in itself utterly, and affirms that Larson's creation belongs with Hair and Fame in the pantheon of immortal musicals with one-word titles celebrating the self-dramatizing, unembarrassable and resilient spirit of youth.

In other words, Rent is occasionally silly, often melodramatic and never subtle. Every song swells toward bombast, and every theme, musical or narrative, is underlined almost to the point of illegibility. Larson's attempt to force the marriage of rock and Broadway often sends the worst of both genres into noisy collision, as if Meat Loaf and Andrew Lloyd Webber were reworking Exile on Main Street. Certainly, the musical traditions of the show's native ground -- home to the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Sonic Youth and so on -- are hardly audible in its tunes. But to raise such objections -- or to chide Rent for its childish politics or its simplistic and instantly obsolete vision of the New York demimonde -- is to think like them.

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