In his review of Rent, Roger Ebert claimed that the famed Broadway musical does not work as a movie because it needs, and is lacking, a live audience. Having come to the movie of Rent with no emotional stake (haven’t seen the B’way show, barely wanted to see the movie), I found it one of the most satisfying movies of 2005.
Yes, it is unquestionably melodramatic. I am told that Rent is the opera “La Boheme” (another cultural touchstone to which I claim ignorance) updated for the AIDS generation, and there are definite moments where the movie is doing little but pulling your strings. By the same token, one could claim that Goeth, the Nazi commandant in the fact-based Schindler’s List, is played by Ralph Fiennes as too conventionally evil. Doesn’t matter, though – his character gives you a chill. And Rent‘s characters are so heartfelt, and the movie so on-target (did Harry Potter‘s Chris Columbus really direct this?), that even the sappier moments are effective.
The setting is New York City in 1989, when America finally started to come to terms with AIDS. The characters are close-knit friends holing up in a tenement run by their former friend Benny (Taye Diggs), who now wants to kiss up to his wealthy father-in-law by evicting his former pals. They include Mark (Anthony Rapp), an aspiring film-maker; Roger (Adam Pascal), a musician who has grown distant since becoming HIV-positive; Tom (Jesse L. Martin), who falls in love with the drag queen (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who aids him after he is mugged; and a stripper/heroin addict named Mimi (Rosario Dawson, in the first movie where the filmmakers seemed to know how to use her fiery talent).
If anything, the movie’s primary point is to show these people existing on their own terms, and the movie shows this admirably. When, in this movie, we see same-sex people sharing a kiss or a hug, it’s presented matter-of-factly; and because the characters actually have some dimension to them, it feels earned.
Chris Columbus, after laboring for many years in Home Alone-type movies, finally seems to know where to put his camera. Musicals, in particular, have trouble striking a balance between looking static and frantic; here, the camerawork really soars, moving gracefully and closing in just enough to let the actors finish the soaring. And unlike most modern-day Broadway musicals, Jonathan Larsen’s score is one that you can hum and that hums on its own, nicely elucidating its characters and doing so with genuinely catchy songs.
Besides the actors listed above, who are all splendid, there’s a fresh-faced powerhouse named Idina Menzel, who plays Maureen, a self-styled, unapologetic lesbian. When caught in a flirt by her Significant Other (Tracie Toms), who tries to chastize her, the two of them spar in a great number, “Take Me As I Am.” And a viewer just knows that, however flighty Maureen is, her lover will just have to come back to her, because she’s darned well worth it.
That’s the treasure of this movie – genuine, heartfelt characterization. Rent is, on all levels, emotionally devastating.