Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stories We Write To Avoid Reviewing Movies We Did Not Enjoy: Rent UGH!

The Good: Moments of vision/concept, Moments of direction
The Bad: Plot serves the songs, Generally disappointing characters, None of the actors shine
The Basics: A disappointing adaptation of a musical I never saw arrives on DVD packed with bonus features that make the primary feature no better.

So, I was cleaning up things left behind by my last ex- and after I sent the box off where it needed to go, I received an angry e-mail. It seems that in my belabored attempt to excise the possessions of my prior love from my house, I forgot Rent. Yes, when I checked, there it was, still unwatched, Rent on DVD waiting for me to return to my ex. So, today, as I played hooky from work (to be fair I was supposed to be on the road to Florida now, but the convention there was postponed), I decided to watch the DVD before I sent it back along to where it belongs.

Considering how little free time I have these days, I am tremendously disappointed in myself now for wasting it this way. There was a joke on The Simpsons, where Homer comments in song a play and says ". . . or Rent or some other piece of crap" and I had the obligatory offense at it (defender of art that I am and having never seen Rent before) and I stubbornly refused to laugh. Now, on this, I'm with Homer.

Rent is a cinematic adaptation of the musical by the same name, following the lives and trials of eight New York City artists and people on the outskirts of the art community there. Essentially, it is a character study that revolves around the relationships within the group building up to and in the aftermath of a protest against a corporation evicting everyone in the neighborhood to put in a high-tech production studio that would allow some artists to do their work. The Bohemian community resists this, along with paying their rent, and conflict ensues between the art and business communities.

These struggles are personified by the characters. There is Mark, the independent filmmaker, Roger, the one-hit wonder, Mimi, the stripper, Angel, the street drummer, and Maureen, the performance artist. On the other side are Joanne, the lawyer, Benjamin, the suit for the landlords, and Tom, who for the life of me (and I JUST finished watching the film) I cannot figure out what he was doing other than acting as a sidekick for Mark and Roger, a love interest for Angel and a guy who comes in with cash at the end.

So, that's the film; set up, singing, characters learn, grow, die, love, fall apart, do drugs, try to get sober, and I just did not like it. There, it's out there. This was pretty terrible, in fact. First, films based on musicals are sketchy with me, but I've seen them done, like with The Phantom Of The Opera (reviewed here!) fairly well. The difference between the cinematic version of any play and the stage play is that the director of the film must use the expanded medium better. The film cannot feel like it could have taken place on a single stage with act breaks. With a cinematic rendition of a stage performance, I want to see camera work that illustrates changes of perspective that could not be gotten through sitting in a seat in a theater. The best adaptations of stage plays do this because the director realizes they are not making a documentary. Instead, they use the film medium and they have the actors play to that, as opposed to relying on their stage sensibilities.

Unfortunately, director Chris Columbus does not do this. Far too often, he has performers singing to camera, acting to camera, looking right at the camera as opposed to one another. This is most notable during Mimi (Rosario Dawson's) strip club scene and Maureen (Idina Menzel's) performance art piece. Indeed, the performance art piece - which was the protest a large chunk of the film was building up to - stuck out like a sore thumb in the film. Columbus failed to make it translate into this medium and it falls flat. Instead of being a protest against authority, Columbus effectively collapses the argument by playing artists as simply sheep to a different shepherd.

Now it behooves me to mention at this point that I am not objecting to the idea of a film about the conflict between art and commerce. I live that struggle every day. As I work to get my second novel published, I've been in a conflict with a major film studio about using a citation I want to include in the book. Their art inspired me, I want to reference that, the business end says "no," I'm nearing the point where I rewrite despite not wanting to. But the point here is that I am sympathetic to the struggle of art and artists.

I'm not sympathetic to these slackers in Rent, though. First, they live in one of the most expensive cities in the world where they refuse to pay for that. I'm so sick of artists who think they have to be in major urban areas and part of a "scene" in order to make legitimate art. And sitting through a two-hour film wherein the protagonists tend to complaining about being poor more than producing art just grates after . . . I don't know, fifteen minutes. Moreover, more of the film isn't actually about artists doing art, it's about artists waiting to make art and resisting authority for . . . the sake of resisting authority. The only genuinely productive members of the group are Mark, who films virtually everything and Mimi, who strips a lot and uses the money to shoot up.

So, it's essentially slackers. Mark doesn't like his parents, so he stays in New York City fighting to film everything he can and sell the footage to make money if he can. Why do Angel, Roger, Mimi, Tom and Joanne stay in the City? Who knows? Arguably, the argument for Angel is that there are broad swaths of the United States where transgendered people are not accepted. Well, as a liberal living in a very conservative area of Upstate New York, and one who has been fired from jobs for having progressive political views, I'll be the first to float the argument that perhaps people would be more accepting of different people if they only had more of them around! Yes, I'm encouraging any transgendered people reading this to move out of the big cities to the suburbs and the rural areas and be out and proud! Artists, transgendered people, anyone who is different, get out of the cities and mingle with the rest of the world! Part of this is completely selfish on my part; I recently took two young people to a concert in nearby Albany, NY (two hours away) and when I needed directions, I found one of my companions looking absolutely slack-jawed because she saw more than three black people for the first time in her life!

How does this relate to Rent? The feeling of being trapped makes no sense on a character level. It's the same way it makes no sense that people packed into New York City insist on being crammed onto the island and yet will pay a premium for space near Central Park to try to feel like their not stuck in the city. I shake my head at people like that and commit acts of profound ad hominem. When I encounter characters like that in cinema or plays or literature, I just grumble and observe how the characters make no genuine sense. There's more than one city, there are more places than just cities and characters who are kvetching about having their lights turned off when they haven't paid when they don't DO anything just annoy me.

The only moment I truly empathized with any character was when Mark starts selling his video footage to a news organization and he is paid a regular wage. Then, he worries he might be selling out, but he DOES something. I respect both the struggle and the willingness to work. As someone who has sold out - I bend pipes at a hellish factory each night to make money to keep my house, much to the sacrifice of my art - I respect the struggle and his character makes sense in that regard.

Much of the rest of the film is just soap operas of characters hooking up, falling apart and waiting to die from HIV. Actually, that leads to the one other thing I liked about Rent. Rent has a very positive view of people living with HIV; in this movie those afflicted are treated humanely and with a strong sense of compassion and realism. I liked that aspect quite a bit and I applaud Columbus and writers Stephen Chbosky and Jonathan Larson for prioritizing that. It makes the film much more watchable.

Unfortunately, the performers do not shine in Rent. I last enjoyed Rosario Dawson in Clerks II (reviewed here!) where she was hilarious and played a very different role than what I had seen her in before. In Rent, she does nothing remotely interesting. Similarly, when I saw the front cover to the DVD, I was psyched to see Tracie Thoms. Thoms played the wonderful sidekick Muhandra McGinty in the short-lived Wonderfalls (reviewed here!). I loved her there and when she presented a solo in the opening credits sequence, I was excited. Unfortunately, she plays Joanne, who does not have the best part in the film. Thoms has a great voice, performs a decent tango, but is much-neglected in the large cast.

The only talent that impressed me was Anthony Rapp, who played Mark. Rapp has the benefit of playing arguably the most interesting character in Rent and therefore has a little advantage. Rapp, however, gets credit with me for the ease of his body language and the way he pays attention to the other actors, as opposed to the camera watching him. He plays most effectively as a character as a result and is very easy to watch.

On DVD, Rent has a full-length commentary track which I couldn't sit through, even for the review. The bonus disc contains a feature-length behind the scenes documentary about the making of the film Rent that is deeply involved with discussing the translation from stage to screen. It will not sell anyone who did not like the film on the value of it. There are deleted scenes and extra songs as well and they have the same effect.

Ultimately, Rent might be a fine play (no comment on that!), but the film is lackluster and uninspired. The characters are unlikable, whiny and make little sense outside the context of being New York City artists or drug users (i.e. some of the characters are motivated by getting their next fix and at least addiction makes some sense). And at the end of the day, it's a shame this didn't make it into the box; it might be the one thing from that relationship I have absolutely no problem giving back.

For other musicals, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Singin’ In The Rain


For other movie reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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