Musicals are not for the literal-minded, and that probably should have ruled out Chris Columbus ("Adventures in Babysitting," "Mrs. Doubtfire,") as the man to bring Broadway's long-running hit "Rent" to the screen. 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 Columbus does it with the utmost respect.
He also deserves full marks for bringing back nearly all the actors who created the roles in 1996, so the Rentheads will find plenty to like, if only because so much is familiar from Broadway.
The thing that made the stage version a hit, and has kept it running, was Jonathan Larson's arresting score, which seemed to reflect everything from Sondheim and the Who to Puccini ("La Boheme" is the loose source) and "Hair." Columbus preserves it, but he doesn't work with it. He just stands in slack-jawed awe and rolls camera. 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. 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.
-- Nelson Pressley