Pretty much everything about modern America that discomfits the stereotypical red-state voter is summed up in “La Vie Boheme,” a bawdy little burlesque number in “Rent,” a charming, though flawed, adaptation of the popular Broadway musical about a group of outcasts struggling to survive in Lower Manhattan.
While it’s certainly meant to be a carnival of the bohemian, a lighthearted finger in the eye of comfortable white suburbanites, “Rent” also deals in sociopolitical seriousness, centering on themes of AIDS and urban poverty.
For someone who prefers the naturalism of movies to the outsize gestures of the stage, a movie like “Rent” is already a tough sell. Beyond that prejudice, this adaptation, directed by Chris Columbus (of “Harry Potter” renown), has a couple other things going against it.
First is a low-wattage ensemble cast. The undistinguished Taye Diggs and Rosario Dawson get top billing as, respectively, greedy landlord Benny Coffin and smack-shooting exotic dancer Mimi Marquez. “Law and Order” alum Jesse L. Martin is another familiar face as Tom Collins, a radical homosexual college professor who falls in love with a transvestite (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). You also may recognize the former teen actor Anthony Rapp, who appeared in Mr. Columbus’ “Adventures in Babysitting” and here plays Mark Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker and the spurned lover of a lesbian performance artist (Idina Menzel).
The movie’s other major problem is an aura of staleness, both in its bombastic score (composed by Jonathan Larson) and time frame. (It begins on Christmas Eve 1989 and ends a year later.) One could argue that the difficulty of making an artistic living in New York is even more acute in post-Giuliani New York and, therefore, “Rent” is more relevant than ever. Still, its emphatic depictions of subway cars and tenement walls covered in graffiti, of aggressive squeegee men and cops rustling vagrants, of alleyway assaults — all seem somewhat dated.
To his credit, Mr. Columbus easily solved the problem of translating a live musical to the screen. For 2002’s Oscar-winning “Chicago,” director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon concocted a scheme in which a character imagined song-and-dance sequences in her head. Mr. Columbus, in contrast, presents the musical numbers straight-on.
Somewhere in the translation from stage to screen, however, “Rent” developed a case of emotional autism. Several of its characters are living with AIDS. Mimi struggles with drugs, while singer-songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal) is a recovering addict. Yet their plights are, at best, operatically sad. (Admittedly, this may be a case of Broadway shtick dulling my feelers.)
The most honest moment of the movie comes when Mark, with his ever-present Super 16 camera, tries to film a pair of New York’s finest shooing a homeless woman from her curbside rest. Rather than thank Mark for his sympathy, however, the woman cantankerously observes that New York is full of fashionably compassionate “artists” like Mark — and then asks, “Do you have a dollar?”
If the makers of “Rent” really hope to spotlight the lack of affordable housing and other problems in New York, they could start by writing a sequel. Call it “Rent Control” (after the market-meddling policy that helps the rich and hurts the poor) and have it explain how the toxic combination of urban liberalism and sexual bohemianism nearly ruined American cities.
I’d gladly tap my toe to that one.
RATING: PG-13 (Mature thematic material involving drugs, sexuality; some profanity)
CREDITS: Directed by Chris Columbus. Produced by Michael Barnathan, Mr. Columbus, Robert De Niro, Mark Radcliffe and Jane Rostenthal. Screenplay by Steve Chbosky. Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt.
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes.
WEB SITE: https://www.sony pictures.com/movies/rent
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS