Inspired by Puccini's opera La Boheme, Rent trades Paris' Latin Quarter of the early 19th century for New York's East Village of the late 20th century, and tells the story of one year in the life of a group of artists struggling to live and love in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, drugs, and homelessness.
Mark (Anthony Rapp) is the narrator, a guerilla filmmaker who lives in a rundown building in an area of the city known as Alphabet City. He pines for Maureen (Idina Menzel), a performance artist with an appreciation for all kinds of drama, who recently left him for a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Mark's roommate is Roger (Adam Pascal), a melancholy musician who can't manage to write a song. He's being wooed by a stripper, Mimi (Rosario Dawson), who lives downstairs, but remains emotionally unavailable to her and to his friends.
Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) round out the core group of friends as the gay lovers who meet each other a few minutes after Tom, a computer whiz, is beaten up. Angel, a flamboyant drag queen street musician alternately referred to as "he" and "she," tends his wounds, and sparks fly.
Together they sing their way from an eviction notice—issued by a former roommate, Benny (Taye Diggs), who married the landlord's daughter and has crossed over to the corporate dark side—to a street protest to an engagement dinner to a funeral. There's very little dialogue that doesn't have a melody, and the movie's exuberant musical performances trip along without much breathing room in which to develop strong attachments to the characters. We're dropped into the lives of these people and it's assumed we care. Some moviegoers will. Some moviegoers won't.
Rent is one of Broadway's longest-running hits, and its move to the big screen is likely to please "Rentheads"—many of whom attended the screening I was at and sang along during the musical numbers. Diggs, Heredia, Martin, Menzel, Pascal, and Rapp were all original cast members ten years ago, and reprise their roles here. Newcomers Rosario Dawson and Joanne Jefferson—along with Menzel, Martin, and Heredia—all give standout performances.
But those without an attachment to the story or a natural affinity for bucking the system on principle alone might find themselves scratching their heads. What is it that these people want exactly? To not ever have to pay rent? Or a restaurant tab? For all their moaning about "the man" and the injustice of modern life, none of the characters seems to be doing much about it on a personal level. Maureen's much hyped protest against an eviction of the homeless seems to be more about raising her own profile than that of the poor. And when Mark pulls out a camera to catch a couple police officers harassing a homeless woman, the woman calls his bluff by asking him to pony up a couple bucks to really help her out.
What the characters in Rent do clearly want is love. They're looking for the shelter another person can provide in a stormy world. And all of the couples take their turns in the limelight, figuring out how to love one another well. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed, but they pursue and cling to each other (friends and lovers alike) with an admirable sense of urgency that's punctuated by the daily AZT doses many of them take. Rent is one of the few movies in which being HIV-positive is a viable pick-up line. These friends live by the motto "no day but today" because AIDS might take their lives, of the life of someone they love, tomorrow.
But for all the big themes Rent deals with—love, death, injustice, community—it still seems a bit superficial. The dirty city streets are just a bit too tidy. The pain is just a bit too sanitized. The hair is just a bit too perfect. And it probably doesn't help that people are singing all the time. There's an energy in live theater, a give and take between the performers and the audience, a certain vulnerability, that can make musicals electric. Rent is a fan favorite on the stage for good reason. And musicals can also work on film. (See Chicago as only the most recent example.) But on the screen musicals are more prone than most genres to seem cheesy, and this adaptation verges on Gouda. Whether moviegoers will break out the crackers remains to be seen.Discussion starters
- How do you measure your life? Rent's characters would say to measure your life in love. But it's also what Christ says (see Matt. 22:36-40). Compare and contrast how that idea is played out in both a bohemian context and a Christian context.
- The motto of Rent is "No day but today." Is this how a Christian should approach life? In what ways might this be good? Are there ways in which such an approach might undermine qualities needed for spiritual maturity?
- Why make a musical about such an apparently dismal existence—not to mention sinful lifestyles? Was the film glorifying these things? Or simply calling due attention to them?
- How should Christians approach films that depict gay relationships? Can we learn anything about love from the homosexual relationships in Rent? From the heterosexual relationship?
- Did this movie affect the way you think about HIV/AIDS? How? Do you think it made light of the virus, or did it take it seriously? How would God want us to respond to people living with HIV/AIDS? Does it matter how they contracted the disease?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Drug use is, in turns, both celebrated and eschewed. The sexual innuendo is thick and equal opportunity—gay and straight men and women are shown kissing and dancing seductively. A woman's bare rear end is shown and the language is sometimes crass.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/01/05
Jonathan Larson's 1996 Broadway revision of La Bohème has been highly acclaimed, but now that it's come to the big screen, many critics wish it would go away. Rent, directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), brings back the original stage cast to perform music about the glories of love and the trials of AIDS. Apparently, the stage production is preferable.
Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says the film's rebellious spirit seems out of tune. "For all their moaning about 'the man' and the injustice of modern life, none of the characters seems to be doing much about it on a personal level." Despite its big themes, she concludes that "it still seems a bit superficial. The dirty city streets are just a bit too tidy. The pain is just a bit too sanitized. The hair is just a bit too perfect. And it probably doesn't help that people are singing all the time. There's an energy in live theater, a give and take between the performers and the audience, a certain vulnerability, that can make musicals electric. Rent is a fan favorite on the stage for good reason … But on the screen musicals are more prone than most genres to seem cheesy, and this adaptation verges on Gouda."
J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says the director simply blew it: "To make up for what's lost in the transition to film … Columbus has fallen back on the cinematic device of camera movement. I know it's customary among movie critics to reflexively criticize Columbus, who's made such critic-proof movies as Home Alone I and II and Mrs. Doubtfire. So I didn't want to be one of those people who shoot darts at the easy target. But, gosh, Columbus really is a hack. I've never seen crane and tracking shots appear so lifeless and arbitrary, and there's hardly a single graceful composition in the film."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "The characters are defiantly anti-bourgeois and anti-authority. … Getting a job is considered 'selling out.' … This worldview taints some otherwise noble sentiments and actions in this story. It's heartbreaking to see the members of the HIV support group rely on nothing more than vague feel-goodism to get through the day. Beyond that, they seem to have no hope—or even awareness that there is hope. Similarly, advice to forgive past wrongs and to seize the day, otherwise admirable counsel, is rooted in nothing more than mere sentiment. … Whether moviegoers are aware of it or not, they're being preached at. And this sermon contains a romanticized glorification of a lifestyle … that despite the movie's upbeat conclusion ends ultimately in hopelessness."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "The film's subject matter may turn off many viewers, but as a snapshot of a piece of cultural history—both the era depicted and the musical itself—it's an impressive achievement. … The dissolute, countercultural lifestyles of some of the characters take second place to the overriding themes of love, connection, dealing with loss and appreciation of life."
Mainstream critics are mixed on Columbus's brand of razzle-dazzle.from Film Forum, 12/08/05
Christie Hudon (Relevant) asks, "How do you measure a movie about bohemian sexuality? Measure in Christian love. The title song of the movie musical Rent, 'Seasons of Love' asks a poignant question. How do you measure the life of a woman or a man? A movie that resonates with beautiful voices and heart-wrenching scenes, Rent is difficult to translate to a Christian audience." She concludes, "Homosexuality as a theme in entertainment isn't going to disappear, because to many men and women it is an answer to finding themselves. Rent showcases this. However, that doesn't mean that Christians should run the other way."