Above all else, “Rent” is a play about not selling out. It is not surprising, then, that the Hollywood release of “Rent” struggles with its commercial gloss. Yet it is not a battle that the film loses altogether. It offers a number of things that the stage production cannot, but fails to deliver the subtle pathos of the play’s tragedy and optimism.
In adapting a staged play to the screen, director Chris Columbus, no longer limited by the physical restrictions of the theater, has the option of shooting on location. This is something “Rent” does extraordinarily well – most exterior sequences were shot on location in New York, and as a New Yorker, I get awfully pissed off when New York location shoots are debased to glossy Hollywood product. However, this doesn’t happen in “Rent.” Most of the locations retain their New York edge, which is refreshing to see in a blockbuster film. The production design warrants praise for painstakingly recreating the Alphabet City of the early ’90s, before former Mayor Rudy Giuliani indiscriminately swept all the hobos and schizos into the sewer.
If “Rent” tells us anything about its director Columbus, it confirms his proclivity for the pedestrian. As he showed the American viewing public in the first two installments of the “Harry Potter” franchise, “Rent” demonstrates the director’s lack of visual flare.
Yet, despite a myriad of visually rich locations, Columbus fails to develop an equally inspired cinematic style. During the musical segments, his work is characterized by slow tracks and pans from a limited number of perspectives, which constantly evoke the film’s stage origins and deny the work a genuine cinematic treatment.
At times, the film suffers from an over-literalism that is unforgivable – the unfortunate consequences of mainstream Hollywood release and the crystal clear narrative thread that is this film’s simultaneous merit and flaw. During the song “Glory” for example, the line “the eyes of a young girl” is accompanied by precisely that – eliciting scornful snickers from the cynics seated to my left and right. One characteristic of the stage show is its ambiguity when dealing with its ostensibly controversial subject matter. The film inevitably loses some of its effect when, for example, there is an in-song close up of “HIV test report: positive.”
Almost all the original Broadway cast has reprised their roles for the feature, with the notable exception of Daphne Rubin-Vega as the strung-out-smack-whore-cat-stripper Mimi. Replacing her on the big screen is the excessively beautiful and healthy looking Rosario Dawson of “Sin City,” whose Hollywood gloss goes contrary to the core message and aesthetics of the play. Though, by the end, I was won over by Dawson, who despite her idyllic features, plays a convincing and loveable street-urchin.
The film struggles in its attempt to recreate the self-consciously off-beat beauty of the staged play. Anyone who goes to see “Rent” without having seen the Broadway production will undoubtedly feel like they are missing something – and indeed they are. Yet the film is an excellent complement to the play.
Thus, my recommendation is to see the film if you have been to the stage production, and if you haven’t, schedule a trip down to New York over winter break and fill the nagging void that will develop after watching the movie.
Lotito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.