Some people would tell you that Rent is a story set to music, and an important story at that. I'm here to state that is absolutely not true in the least. Rent is not a story set to music, rather it is a series of vague ideas set to music. The film wants to be about something, but it keeps us at such a curious distance from its characters, concentrating solely on its never-ending parade of Broadway rock anthems that start to sound the same as the film goes on. Despite being an open musical theater geek, I have never seen the original stage production of Rent. The show never quite appealed to me enough to spend $100+ (the average asking price for today's musical in New York) for a seat. After seeing this film, I have to say it was probably the smartest move I've ever made, as even paying $5.50 for a matinee is too much to watch 30-somethings pretending to be early 20-somethings whining about corporate greed and drugs.
Set during the course of one year (1989 to 1990), the film follows a group of friends who live in and around a rundown apartment building in New York City. Most of the story is told through the point of view of struggling filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) who lives with equally struggling musician, Roger (Adam Pascal) and films everything around him for a "realistic" documentary about life in the city. When we finally get a glimpse of his film at the very end of the movie, we can see why he's struggling and why he should stay that way. But, he's a "rebel" who refuses to "sell out" to corporations, so he's our hero, I guess. The rest of our cast of misfits include Mark and Roger's close friend, Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), who falls in love with a drag queen named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) after the saintly cross dresser takes care of him after Tom gets mugged early in the film. There's also Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a stripper/dancer who lives downstairs and is in love with Roger, but Roger has a hard time expressing his feelings, because she's a drug addict, and he lost a woman he loved in the past due to drug needles and HIV. Last and not least, there's Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Joanne (Traci Thoms). Maureen was Mark's girlfriend who dumped him when she discovered she was bi-sexual, and has since been dating the young female lawyer Joanne instead.
The plot (such as it is) basically centers around the trials and tribulations of this band of friends. Whether it's dealing with paying the rent, staying true to your beliefs and visions and not selling out to corporate greed, or dealing with addictions and vices, these people have a rock anthem in their hearts to tell how they feel, and that's all they seem to have. We never get to truly learn how these characters feel, or what draws them together as friends. The entire experience feels as shallow as your Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster because of this. When one of the friends dies of AIDS, it has no effect on the audience, not only because the film makes no effort whatsoever to develop the tragic character, but that it happens literally out of the blue. In one scene, the character is leaping off of bar tables and rocking out, and then suddenly, he's frail and ill and practically on his death bed a couple scenes later. It all builds to a ludicrous climax that has to be seen to be believed, involving a girl's soul being saved by a drippy love song and a heavenly drag queen. And no, I'm not making this up.
The big problem with Rent is that there's just no point to the proceedings. Often times, there is no dialogue to lead us into the next song. They will finish one song about how they refuse to pay the rent, and will burn their unpublished screenplays to stay warm (Oh, such rebels! Such starving artists! Gag...), and then not even 5 seconds later, the character of Roger is up on his roof singing about the girlfriend he lost to drugs and HIV. There is absolutely no character development whatsoever. No real relationships are formed. No characteristics are displayed. And no real emotion other than whining is present. It feels more like you're watching a 2 hour+ rock concert about how tragic the lives of these characters are. And it would be tragic if the movie actually let us get to know them. The movie hints at relationships and characters and struggles, but doesn't clue us in. For example, early in the film, we are introduced to Benny (played by Taye Diggs). He's the closest thing this film has to a villain, as he once used to be "one of them", but married a wealthy girl, sold out to corporations, and is now threatening to destroy part of their run down neighborhood. No real explanation is given for their antagonistic relationship other than Benny was smart enough to actually get a life and make money, while everyone else whines about how underappreciated they are for their work and their "art". In a normal film, this would develop into a conflict that would lead to some sort of confrontation or resolution. Not so in Rent. Benny is seen about 4 or 5 times throughout the film, and most of the time, he's in the background. He's not a character, rather he is simply a symbol for what the heroes stand against.
And that's really what this movie is all about. It's not about actual ideas and it has no real message, it's just about symbols. The screenplay doesn't dig deep enough to give us any real insight into the characters or their hardships. Take Tom and Angel the saintly drag queen. Not once is their relationship developed in any realistic means. Tom gets mugged 3 seconds after we meet him, is discovered by Angel, and then they're in love the next time we see them. No exposition is given whatsoever about their connection other than they're both gay and both have AIDS. It makes their later scenes when one of them becomes ill all the more shallow and pointless because we have not learned anything about their love. When the dying character is on his deathbed, and the other is sobbing uncontrollably, it should not leave us feeling cold and wondering why the other is crying. But, because we know nothing about them, we cannot feel the right emotions. The movie simply hints at a relationship. Maybe the PG-13 rating restricted the filmmakers. I have heard from fans of the stage musical that a lot of the lyrics had to be cleaned up for the rating. But, I've also heard those same fans say that this is a faithful adaptation of the original work, so I'm guessing that's not the case.
The entire experience of watching Rent indeed is a curiously unemotional experience thanks to the strictly average direction by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and the strangely boring choreography. I'd take a rough estimate that during 70 or 75% of the film's musical numbers (which makes up 90% of the films running time) the characters do absolutely nothing but look at the camera and sing. There is simply no life. They're even standing there singing, sitting there singing, or walking from one side of a room to another while singing. The only musical number that seems to have any real life is when Mark and Roger meet Angel for the first time, and a group number that takes place in a bar about halfway through the film. There is one fantasy-based number where Mark hits his head, and has a vision of a group of people doing a tango, but this sequence seems out of place in a film that is so steeped in reality that its characters very rarely actually break out and do anything but just stand there. All of the performers (most of them returning from the original Broadway cast almost 10 years ago) are good and have strong voices, even if they do seem to be a bit too old to be playing their characters in some cases. Although they all sing incredibly well, they can't overcome the uninspired rhyming lyrics of late composer Jonathan Larson, and his all rock score that lacks any sort of originality and starts to all sound the same by the one hour mark.
In the end, I can only recommend Rent for diehard fans of the original stage production. (Rent-heads, as I hear they call themselves.) I personally found the film curiously empty, unemotional, and unfeeling in just about every aspect. For a film that seemingly wants to enlighten and preach, that's a cardinal sin. The main message I got from Rent is that we should be nicer to drag queens, as they hold all of life's answers, and can teach us all about love and respecting each other. Oh, and drugs are bad. And AIDS sucks. So does making money and going corporate. Of course, this last message is kind of lost when you consider that Rent the stage musical is a corporate machine itself. (Don't forget to buy the official Rent coffee mug and T-shirt when you go and pick up that original Broadway cast recording, or the new movie soundtrack recording.) Maybe I'm just cynical. Or maybe Rent's just not a very good musical. You be the judge.