Monday, November 28, 2005

A rant about "Rent"

When it comes to the songs of "Rent," I am a true believer.

I believe that these people are artists struggling against a system designed to keep them down, not self-indulgent deadbeats who just don't want to pay their bills. I believe that New York can be the Bohemia these beautiful people are singing about so passionately. It was this passion which beat down reality, listen after listen.

Unfortunately, director Chris Columbus doesn't believe. How could he and still take this story and make a movie from it that is, against amazing odds, often boring?

The songs are still there, and with the original cast members mostly on board, they sound great. Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Mimi in the Broadway show, opted out because she was pregnant, and she is sorely missed. If I'm not mistaken, the actress who played Joanne on Broadway backed out, I assume after taking a reassuring look at her bank account, on the principle that, at 42, she is too old to play an angst-ridden 20-something.

In translating the remaining stars' efforts onto film, however, Columbus made two crucial errors right from the start.

First, rather than even try to set the story in anything that looked like the New York of the late 1980s, before Giuliani and gentrification "cleaned it up," he has his cast decked out in what is clearly period attire and singing through the streets of what is clearly 2005 Manhattan. Any of the other directors who were rumored to be interested in this project, notably Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann and Spike Lee, would have leaped at the challenge of re-creating this bygone era rather than cower from it.

Apparently Columbus took the movie's mantra, "No day but today," very literally.

Second, he took at least a third of the book from the musical, the parts between the mostly memorable songs, and changed them from sung lines to simple dialogue. It disrupts the flow tremendously, and leaves the impression that Columbus would have been perfectly happy to present "Rent" as a play if it weren't for all these darn lyrics Jonathan Larson left for us to enjoy before he died of a brain aneurysm on the musical's opening night.

Despite Columbus' best efforts to destroy it, by sheer will his actors bring some scenes in "Rent" the movie to vibrant life. Most notably, Wilson Jermaine Heredia is perfect as the drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard. You'll never think of Santa Claus the same way again after you see his most dramatic entrance. He makes every scene he is in better, and Jesse L. Martin (Det. Ed Green to you "Law and Order" buffs), plays off this energy in a great turn as Angel's lover Tom Collins.

Apparently it's the season to play gay if you want to be taken seriously on screen. Look soon for Cillian Murphy (hopefully presented at some point by the Macon Film Guild) dragged out in the film adaptation of Patrick McCabe's fantastic novel "Breakfast on Pluto," and just try not to think about "South Park" if you get to see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play gay cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain."

Only Broadway officionados should recognize the name Idina Menzel at this point, but that won't last long. As the drama queen Maureen in "Rent" she's flirty, funny and always seemingly unaware of what's she's going to do next and who it might affect. It certainly doesn't hurt that she's also sexy as hell.

Which brings us, by rough segue, to Rosario Dawson as Mimi, clearly the ringer in this project. Before I say anything bad about her, let me say this: It's not her fault. She clearly tried very hard, and her gymnastics at the Cat Scratch Club almost make you forget that she's fully clothed in her strip-club routine to the great song "Out Tonight."

Her problem is that no sparks fly between her and Roger, played on film and on Broadway by the vapid Adam Pascal. As she smolders, he barely burns at all, and mostly ruins her performance. She sings fine, and is a great actress. If you want to see her in a much better movie about New York, check her out with Ed Norton in Spike Lee's "25th Hour."

As an ensemble, the cast gels perfectly for the show-stopper "La Vie Boheme," wisely filmed in the tight confines of a restaurant where its stars get to dance on tables, moon authority figures and do all the other things we would if our ego finally lost its eternal struggle with the id. Heredia and Martin are also a joy to watch prancing down the sidewalk to the musical's best love song, "I'll Cover you." But these moments are unfortunately not the norm.

After about two hours, the gentleman in front of me felt the need to check the time on his neon-green cellphone, but I didn't mind. Columbus clearly knew as well as we did that it was time to wrap things up, so he went straight for the director's crutch: the montage.

Instead of seeing Mimi sing "Without You," a powerful song on paper, we get scenes of Angel's health deteriorating, people fighting and other things needed to wrap up the story, but never do we see anyone singing. At this point, it goes from musical number to background music, and the change is jarring.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe in "Rent." And I really did want to believe the director of "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" could deliver it for me on film. But I've been lied to before, and I'll get over it long before I get to see Peter Jackson's "King Kong." If that's not any good, I'll really be depressed.


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