RENT (Chris Columbus, 2005)
Jonathan Larson’s Broadway musical RENT gets the big screen treatment courtesy of director Chris Columbus. Most of the original Broadway cast reprise their roles for the filmed RENT, with Rosario Dawson as nightclub dancer Mimi being a major exception.
The contemporary reworking of Puccini’s LA BOHEME follows a year among friends and acquaintances, mostly struggling artists and musicians, who live and love in 1989 East Village New York. All of the characters are affected by AIDS, whether HIV positive themselves or close to those who are. Most live and work in a dilapidated building but cannot afford the rent they owe to Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs), a fellow bohemian who married into money and is now their landlord. Benjamin wants to convert the space into a cyber studio, but he can’t do so unless he evicts his old friends.
Upon its stage debut in 1996, RENT stood out from the pack in featuring characters that covered the GLBT spectrum, a story that dealt with AIDS, and a rock-influenced soundtrack. The play may have felt fresh nearly ten years ago, but the film version is about as edgy as Pat Boone covering Nirvana. The grimy environs and lurid subject matter are tamed by the pretty operetta that sounds less like rock and roll and more like showtunes with electric guitars.
The biggest problem with RENT is characters that embody the worst stereotypes of creative types: smug, shallow, and narcissistic. This comes to a head with the unbearable song “La Vie Boheme”. In the film it is defiantly performed to the suits in a café. The scene reeks of snotty self-indulgence and self-righteousness rather than heartfelt expression of creative independence. The superior attitude dripping from these characters—a disdain for anything bourgeois—might be palatable if they weren’t depicted as mediocre (at best) talents with infantile worldviews. Who cares about selling out when you literally can’t survive?
Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerated RENT in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE with the song parody “Everyone Has AIDS”. It hits upon everything insufferable about how Columbus’ film portrays these proud, codependent nonconformists.