Musicals are not for the literal-minded, and that probably should have ruled out Chris Columbus as the man to bring Broadway's long-running hit "Rent" to the screen. Columbus seems smitten with the concept of "actual reality" -- a flip quip made by one of "Rent's" exuberant bohemians -- and he labors mightily to make the movie look and feel like something that genuinely bubbled up from the mean streets of Alphabet City at the height of AIDS angst.
The emphasis is misplaced, but at least he does it with the utmost respect. Columbus ("Adventures in Babysitting," "Mrs. Doubtfire," the first two Harry Potter movies) is clearly a fan, and he preserves Jonathan Larson's celebrated Broadway rock score with only minor cuts and alterations and allowing just a subtle veneer of studio polish on the musical production.
Columbus also deserves full marks for bringing back nearly all the actors who created the roles in 1996 -- the performers who knew Larson and still reverberate with the joy and shock of his sudden discovery and untimely death. (The 35-year-old composer died of an aneurysm as the show was in previews off-Broadway, tragically echoing his show's "No day but today" message.) So the Rentheads will find plenty to like, if only because so much is familiar from Broadway.
As Mark, the aspiring documentary filmmaker, Anthony Rapp brandishes the same balled-up frustration (and trademark striped sweater) as when the show premiered almost a decade ago. Playing Roger, the depressed guitarist with AIDS and writer's block, Adam Pascal still broods and growls his songs like a starving artist/angry young punk. The velvety Jesse L. Martin continues to beam like a schoolboy with a crush as Collins, the laid-back and unemployed gay philosopher, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia twirls like a dervish in Christmas-miniskirt drag as the aptly named Angel, Collins's savior (and the primary messenger of tolerance for us all).
Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel, now married in real life, return as well -- Diggs as Benny, a corporate sellout trying to evict his old pals from their leaky warehouse squat, and Menzel as Maureen, a hotblooded performance artist who dumps Mark for uptown African American lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms, a rookie in this ensemble).
Toss in newcomer Rosario Dawson's lithe, heavy-lidded turn as Mimi, a drug-addled stripper who takes a shine to Roger (an ex-junkie himself), and there you have the whole unconventional family. "Rent's" theme of inclusion, like so much theater of its time, is simultaneously sentimental and rabid -- bleeding hearts and fists in the air.
The thing that made the stage version a hit, and has kept it running, was Larson's arresting score, which seemed to reflect everything from Sondheim and the Who to Puccini ("La Boheme" is the loose source) and "Hair" (liberally plundered for the freewheeling dance-on-the-table number "La Vie Boheme"). Wasting almost no time on dialogue, the music featured big, driving, catchy choral numbers, haunting anthems of fear and affirmation, a bright gloss on Puccini in Mimi's and Roger's "Light My Candle," a nifty southwestern breeze in Collins's wishful "Santa Fe," acrid comedy as Mark and Joanne get thrown together for the tart "Tango: Maureen" . . .
A bracingly wide range of styles cohabited under the rock umbrella, all of it written with a ton of heart. It was, and is, a big romantic mess -- Larson's untimely death preempted serious polishing -- with moments of real glory.
Columbus preserves it, but he doesn't work with it. He just stands in slack-jawed awe and rolls the camera. Love songs baffle him: Columbus has no clue how to spark excitement when Dawson and Pascal bumble and flirt in the dark during "Light My Candle," and he reacts to the sweet "I'll Cover You" -- a pulsing, swelling romantic duet -- by having Martin and Heredia croon it as they saunter down a city block. Talk about your pedestrian ideas.
Things perk up a little when Columbus lets choreographer Keith Young off the leash, but only a little. ("Rent" was never much of a dance show; it's a rock opera.) "Tango: Maureen" turns into a full dance fantasy after Mark falls and hits his head, but despite a sudden chorus in formal wear, the number never truly blooms.
Worse is the pole dance in a subway car for "Santa Fe" -- or maybe the total inertia at the end of Mimi's strip club "Out Tonight" (with Dawson's gymnastics pushing the PG-13 envelope) and Roger's bellowed "Another Day" response, a sequence that ought to make you want to cheer. Onstage, "Rent" is a series of power surges, but in the movie the songs leave you flat.
Fear of music: It's why Columbus and co-adapter Steve Chbosky added maybe 20 minutes of dialogue to what was a sung-through show, almost every bit of which has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of making things more realistic, it exposes the hokey material.
Like so many people who have made a hash of musicals on stage and screen for a generation, Columbus and his team are deeply ambivalent about this whole singing and dancing thing; it's just not natural, and movies, well, they're so unavoidably realistic. (What a fallacy: They're both dream factories.) So Columbus and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt serve up dark, gritty settings that capture "Rent's" milieu, but not its expansive heart. It would have been better by far to stay cocooned within the propulsive music and its parallel universe of inflated emotions.
The actors get it; that's where they live, and where they're good -- in the songs. If Columbus had looked for ways to be less a curator and more of an artist, he might have soared with them.
Rent (135 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.