Adapted by Home Alone director Christopher Columbus from Jonathan Larson's 1996 hit musical (which was itself a loose adaptation of La Bohème), Rent takes place in New York City during a year book-ended by Christmas Eves 1989 and 1990. The film, like the play, chronicles the lives of struggling artists, many of whom have AIDS, as they try to find love and creative fulfillment. The conflict, beyond AIDS, stems from the impending gentrified doom looming over our heroes' neighborhood as greedy developers plan to turn their ramshackle dwelling into a corporate cesspool. Between dying of AIDS, kicking heroin addiction and trying to hold on to their artistic integrity, Angel, Maureen, Mark, Mimi and the others fight to keep their neighborhood safe for fellow artists, the homeless, and junkies looking to ride the dragon. Think of the cast of misfits as the post-Reagan-era kids from Fame, after they've graduated from high school and discovered the world to be a cold, lonely place filled with smack addicts and AIDS victims—all of whom are exceptionally attractive and talented.
Just as Milos Forman's film version of Hair came nearly 10 years too late, so too does Rent arrive nearly a decade out of place. Power-ballad rock songs come with such frequency that you want to scream, "Enough already!" Like the songs, Columbus' direction harks back to first-generation MTV, both recalling the glory days of Bon Jovi and Madonna. This is not a good thing, so much as it is a bit of unfortunate nostalgia, like looking through your high-school yearbook and asking, "What was I thinking?"
At its best, Rent is like an episode of Fame—when Bruno was still on the show. At its worst—which is most of the time—the film is an embarrassing mix of over-the-top melodrama and bad songs. Imagine Showgirls as a musical, with songs penned by a Jim Steinman wannabe, and you start to get the idea of how embarrassingly bad Rent is. In fact, Steinman's classic songs for Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell album would make for a more compelling film than Larson's cheesy music.
If the blubbering women in the audience sitting behind me were any indication, Rent will strike a resonant chord with at least some fans of the original play. But those with discerning taste will be shocked and amazed at how bad a film has been made out of this Tony- and Pulitzer-winning stage show. Even during some of the good moments—of which there are a few—you can rest assured another insipid song is just moments away, bringing with it unintentional laughs, eye rolls, wrenching gags or any combination of the three.
RENT: Rated PG-13. Opens Wednesday, Nov. 23. Fox Tower, Lloyd Cinema, Eastport, Division, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cornelius, Evergreen, Hilltop, Movies on TV, Sandy, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Cinema 99, Cinetopia, City Center, Vancouver Plaza.