It could be worse, I suppose. Blissfully unfamiliar with the showtunes that made Rent an off-Broadway and Broadway stalwart, I was put off in a big way by the original trailer, whose main feature is a bare stage featuring an octet of performers (look, I recognize Taye Diggs!) belting out “Seasons of Love,” which feels kind of like the ur-Broadway musical song — fresh-scrubbed-yet-gloppy all-you-need-is-love sentiment, a notch above Hallmark, a notch below Neil Diamond.
I was more than a little depressed that the American movie musical was resuscitated and put back on life support by Chicago, of all things, an uncinematic film that seemed to me spectacularly unengaged even with the idea of the movie musical, treating each big number instead as a two-dimensional stage show, with graceless edits made as if to disguise the fact that its big-money stars weren’t, shall we say, the most lithesome of dancers. (Naturally, the establishment rewarded Chicago with a Best Picture Oscar and director Rob Marshall with the chance to move on to a high-profile literary adaptation, Memoirs of a Geisha.) So when news came out that Rent would be directed by Chris Columbus, a guy for whom the first two, essentially anonymous, Harry Potter adaptations represent a career high, I was decidedly nonplussed.
But opportunity presented itself and I found myself at an early screening and, despite some early gnashing of the teeth, danged if I didn’t find myself at least appreciating some of the performances. Faint praise, I know, I know, but the less said about actual filmmaking technique the better. There’s Screenwriting 101 tricks like the introduction of a character called Angel as a selfless, unreasonably perfect little fellow who will obviously not live to see the third act. There’s that gimmick of the laziest of storytellers — the phony death scene, which is cynically designed to jerk your tears and then push your pleasure buttons in the most dishonest way. (It doesn’t help that Adam Pascal is wailing a dreadful rock tune with Steve Perry vocal inflections while all this is going on.) Finally, will someone please rescue Chris Columbus’s movies from the tyranny of the reaction shot? Even when the performers work up a good head of steam in some jaunty number or other, he insists on undercutting the rhythm and flow of the scene, and on insulting his audience’s ability to have its own reaction to the music, by dropping in a dopey insert of somebody’s facial expression. It’s not a style, it’s an anti-style, unfit even for television directors, and his movies would improve noticeably and immediately if he could just stop doing it.
At least Columbus’s conception of the scenes is three-dimensional, with the camera occasionally moving in among the dancers to get a better vantage or to hitch itself to a jaunty rhythm. And his performers are, generally, earnest enough to put the material across without too much heavy lifting. However, several of them do look to be in their mid-30s, which is unfortunate in a movie that purports to be about young people finding their place in life — especially because I’ve never seen a movie that pays so much lip service to the idea of being young, shiftless and idealistic while simultaneously treating it with such condescension. (Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, maybe?)
There’s a big sickmaking number set in a Village restaurant where our protagonists dance on tables and call out hosannas to life in the lower-class counterculture while the paying clientele look on adoringly. (Look at the sweet little East Village bohos, aw they’re so cute!) But what seems like guileless, straightforward sentiment is undercut elsewhere. Here’s a movie where a superficially committed wannabe avant-garde filmmaker goes to work for a tabloid television show, where the sexy neighbor’s joie de vivre is negated by a nasty crank habit, and where a local hero mounts a risible performance-art piece to protest the arrival of some kind of coffee shop in her East Village neighborhood. The worst offense in all this is that the characters come across as bland, spoiled children, looking less like the type of kids who actually populated the East Village in the 1980s and more like the yuppies who have displaced them. They’re even cute when they shoot up. That Rent declines to explore them at anything deeper than sitcom level is probably part of the secret to its stage success, but outside the immediate confines of a Broadway theater the drama comes up wanting.
Also, does it ever end? No, it doesn’t seem to. I’ve docked it a notch for going on forever.