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Rent (November 17/05)

Given the accolades thrown at Chicago a few years ago, it'd be reasonable to expect a similar sense of mediocrity from Rent. Yet it's clear almost immediately that aside from a shared emphasis on musical numbers, the two films have virtually nothing in common - particularly given the abundance of memorable songs and charismatic performances (two things that were sorely missing from Chicago).

The film, based on Jonathan Larson's acclaimed stage play, follows several New York-based friends over the course of one particularly tumultuous year. Mark (Anthony Rapp) is an aspiring filmmaker who is attempting to cope with the revelation that his ex-girlfriend, Maureen (Idina Menzel), is now dating a woman (Tracie Thoms). Roger (Adam Pascal) is an aspiring musician who finds inspiration in Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a dancer at a local after-hours club. Finally, there's Collins (Jesse L. Martin) - a computer whiz who's found true love in the arms of a flashy drag-queen named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia).

Given that Rent is purportedly based on Puccini's opera La Bohème, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that virtually every single line of dialogue is communicated via song (which is true of even the most seemingly innocuous conversation). It's an intriguing choice that admittedly takes a while to get used to; there's just something inherently funny about watching characters sing their arguments to each other. But Larson - who passed away on the eve of the show's Broadway premiere - packs the story with an impressive amount of catchy, thoroughly ingratiating musical numbers (thankfully, there are far more good tunes here than bad).

Because many of the film's cast members were also a part of the original stage production (Dawson is the most notable exception), there's a palpable sense of authenticity at work here; we really believe that these people genuinely like and respect each other. And though a few of the characters are painted in exceedingly broad strokes - particularly Angel, who generally comes off as a flamboyant caricature - these are likeable, compelling figures that one can't help but root for. There are also a number of undeniably touching moments (including a powerful sequence set within the confines of an AIDS support group meeting), which are unfortunately interspersed with some decidedly insignificant interludes. At a running time of over two hours, there's no doubt that the movie could've benefited from some judicious editing.

Having said that, Rent never feels long or overstays its welcome; director Chris Columbus does a nice job of infusing the film with the occasional burst of style, but essentially allows the performers to just do their thing. With its distinctly epic vibe, charismatic performances, and foot-tapping songs, there's no doubt that Rent is that rare musical that just might appeal to folks that ordinarily shun the genre.

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