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the Artists, the Virus and the Spectacular Failure
by david   December 12, 2005

rent starring: Adam Pascal,Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms and Taye Diggs

I've been chewing on Chris Columbus's Rent for over a week and a half now and what it boils down to is this: it simply doesn't work. It's not that it took me this long to figure that out -- I knew it ten minutes in (though I continued to hope it would get better). It's just that I spent a long time trying to figure out exactly why.

It's not because you can't translate a musical to the screen. It's been done a thousand times, and some of them, even recent ones (Chicago, anyone?), are excellent films. It's not that the acting is poor -- the performances in Rent range from "good" (Adam Pascal's Roger, Taye Diggs' Benny) to "very good" (Anthony Rapp's Mark, Sarah Silverman's slimy news magazine executive) to "great" (Idina Menzel's bizarrely attractive Maureen, Tracie Thoms's Joanne, Rosario Dawson's incredibly hot Mimi) to "spectacular" (Wilson Jermaine Heredia's Angel, Jesse L. Martin's Collins). It's not that the play on which Rent is based is bad -- I've never been a true Rent fan (as far as I'm concerned, while some of the music is excellent and the first act is a lot of fun, the second act is a disjointed mess), but there is much to enjoy in its sincere and earnest expressions of love and the importance of human relationships above all else. It's not that Rent is dated -- it is a creature of another time, with a distinct late-1980s/early-1990s sensibility, but with just a few tweaks and some focused design effort it could have been a sort of period piece: a snapshot of the life of the New York art community in the early 1990s.

No, the problems with Rent can be summed up in two words: Chris Columbus.

Like he did with the first two Harry Potter films, Columbus has managed to suck all of the magic, the joy and the humanity out of Rent, and replace it with nonsensical displays of fake emotion and what he clearly feels is "dramatic" camera work. There are so many things wrong with what Columbus has done here, just simple, bold, "why on earth would that character do that?" mistakes, that I'd have to write a short novel to list them all. I will linger on two particulars, just to illustrate my point:

(spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the film and don't want to know the important plot turns, you may not want to continue)

Exhibit A: "I'll Cover You"

Midway through the show, there's a sweet, sexy, moving song sung by Collins and Angel, describing the intensity of their new love. It's important to the story, because Angel gets very sick soon after and dies (both characters, like many others in the film/play, are living with AIDS), radically changing the direction of the characters' lives. Given all of New York to play with, and the ability to change location mid-song (something that can be done on film so much more easily than on stage), and the freedom to embrace the idea of two men in love on film, Columbus chooses to stage this song with Collins and Angel running down the street, sometimes holding hands. The song ends with a chaste, almost brotherly kiss. This is a sultry song whose often sexy (if cheesy) lyrics include lines like, I'll be your shelter/Just pay me back/With one thousand kisses/Be my lover - I'll cover you and Just slip me on/I'll be your tenant and You'll be my king/And I'll be your castle. It's the perfect opportunity to show Collins and Angel setting up a life together, to show them as lovers, as deeply committed partners. Instead: a foot race and a virginal kiss.

Exhibit B: Mimi's Recovery

Part-way through the film, Mimi, a drug addict, disappears from treatment. Much of the third act is spent in search of her. She's found, at the climax of the play, freezing to death on the streets of New York. She's brought to Roger, her boyfriend, and all watch as she lies unconscious in his arms. He sings her the song he wrote for her as she slowly dies. Then, when all seems lost, she twitches back to life, tells everyone she saw Angel (who died at the beginning of Act 2), and there is much celebration. On stage, this happens, out of necessity, entirely in Roger's loft apartment. Everyone stands around and watches as Roger sings to her and she dies, and then comes back to life. But in a movie, we could see someone frantically calling 9-1-1. We could see her being loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. We could see Roger sitting by Mimi's bed, singing to her late at night in a silent hospital. We could see Angel appearing to Mimi as she drifts in limbo, sending her back to her life, while Roger sings about how he loves her. Most of all, we could see people doing the sensible, or even hysterical, things people do when one of their best friends is dying right in front of them. Instead, we get a bunch of people standing around slack-jawed, waiting for the end of the play. In the world of theater, we have to strain to suspend our disbelief at the end of this play, and we do so because we understand the constraints of live theater. In the world of film, we just don't, and shouldn't, have to.

In all fairness, there is one really fine, simple scene in the film: the musical number "Santa Fe," staged playfully in a subway car. The scene has just the right blend of the real and surreal, just the right blend of acting and choreography, just the right display of relationship and love between the characters involved. I have no idea who really directed that bit because, apart from this scene, the opening number (sung simply by the actors in an empty theater), and "Will I" (where members of Life Support, a support group for people living with AIDS, fade away as they die), the rest movie is very nearly unwatchable.

What it boils down to, for me, is that Columbus, as a director, is cursed with a lack of a) imagination and b) simple understanding of what it means to be a human being. Someone needs to send him back to the world of Home Alone, where he can follow a sitcom formula and show cartoons instead of characters and his target audience can laugh their 8-year-old asses off. Or, better yet, send him back to the world of writing enjoyable adolescent films like the Goonies and Gremlins, something he was good at, and just keep him out from behind the camera altogether.

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