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A troupe of failures for sale -- or, 'Rent'

November 23, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

HOW to put this. "Rent" is a Chris Columbus adaptation of a smash-hit Broadway musical about artistic integrity, counterculture, political activism and squatters' rights that may have been the most successful moneymaking venture ever staked on selling the idea that "selling out" is bad.

(Two tickets for an 8 p.m. Friday show at the Nederlander Theater in New York, up to $295 apiece. The chance to tap your Ferragamo-shod toe to lyrics like "No pension ... hating convention ... hating pretension ... riding your bike midday past the three-piece suits?" Priceless.)

It's hard to put the experience of watching "Rent" into words, especially after "Team America: World Police" said everything there was to say about the play with puppets, and so succinctly. ("Everyone has AIDS! AIDS AIDS AIDS! AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS! Everyone has AIDS!")

But I'll try.

"Rent" is commodified faux bohemia on a platter, eliciting the same kind of numbing soul-sadness as children's beauty pageants, tiny dogs in expensive boots, Mahatma Gandhi in Apple ads. It's about art, activism and counterculture in the same way that a poster of a kitten hanging from a tree branch ("Hang in There!") is about commitment and heroic perseverance. It represents everything the people it pretends to stand for hate. And it doesn't even know it. Watching it feels sort of like watching "Touched by an Angel" with your grandmother and realizing that although you're clearly looking at the same thing, you're seeing something entirely different. It's awkward to behold.

The movie begins on a stage, with all of the characters lined up singing "Seasons of Love." The theater setting is the movie's single reference to its origins, but though the characters soon leave the stage for good, the movie never really does. Compared to a masterpiece of the genre such as "Cabaret," "Rent" seems to find its new status as a film more embarrassing than liberating, and it clings to its own theatricality for dear life, as though it were Blanche DuBois and someone had just flipped on the lights.

It's Dec. 24, 1989, and Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), an earnest filmmaker with a Bolex camera strapped to his handlebars, rides through the streets of Lower Manhattan, earnestly photographing homeless people and singing.

Returning home to his Alphabet City loft, he finds his heat and electricity have been turned off. His roommate, Roger (Adam Pascal), a musician, informs him that they've received an eviction notice from their former friend, roommate and fellow artist Benny (Taye Diggs), who has married up, up and away to the landlord's daughter.

Meanwhile, their friend Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a philosophy professor who just got fired from MIT for his "theory of actual reality," is mugged in an alley, where he's rescued by a loving drag queen named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia); and a heroin-addicted exotic dancer named Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson) swoons over her upstairs neighbor Roger, who assiduously ignores her. Wouldn't you know it -- everyone has AIDS. Roger, Mimi, Angel and Tom do, anyway. The rest of the gang is merely broke and dysfunctional.

Soon, Benny shows up, offering to reinstate rent-free living if Mark and Roger help stop a protest, planned by Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel). This would pave the way for his new "state of the art virtual digital interactive studio." Maureen, a narcissistic performance artist, has recently left Mark for a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms), but Mark and Roger would rather starve, freeze and sing about it than lift one finger toward the neighborhood's gentrification.

Not that you blame them. Or you wouldn't, if the movie didn't make it so hard not to roll your eyes every five minutes. For all its passionate defense of bohemian living ("Rent" is cribbed from Puccini's "La Boheme"), much of it delivered from atop a table at a local restaurant where the bourgeoisie stick around to be dutifully epate, the movie's supposed admiration for the lives of noncommercial artists doesn't touch its withering disdain for their work.

How is anyone supposed to get behind a guy whose "films" are just home movies of the homeless and his soon-to-be homeless friends? (In one scene, a homeless woman begins to call him on it, but ends up just deriding him for being poor. "Hey, artist, do you have a dollar? I didn't think so." Oh, snap.) Or behind a blocked songwriter who spends an entire year agonizing over a song that turns out to be a bunch of moldy cliches set to power chords? Or a performance artist whose "multimedia protest" would make Laurie Anderson's eyes bleed? Only the fashion-obsessed drag queen and the uptight lawyer avoid the lethal combination of pretension, sentimentality, self-congratulation and posturing that more or less characterizes their friends' work -- hey, everybody needs fashion and laws.

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