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Film Review ***1/2: Seasons of Love and Brutality

...Rent... Darkens in its Translation to Film

By Kenneth Roraback

Rent

Directed by Chris Columbus

Based on the musical by Jonathan Larson

Screenplay by Stephen Chbosky

Starring Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs,
Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal,

Anthony Rapp, Wilson Heredia, Tracie Thomas

Rated R

Opens Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005

December 24, 1989, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. From here on in I shoot without a script. See if anything comes of it, instead of my old shit.” With these words, Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp) opens the action of “Rent.” The gritty details of New York City flash before the audience as Mark bikes home to his grungy apartment building where he finds that he, along with countless others, has received an eviction notice because of unpaid back-rent.

Although the struggle to pay the rent is carried throughout the story, the film is not really about rent in a literal sense, but rather it is about struggle for life and love, and the struggle to make one’s life matter. The idea of rent is a metaphor tying to themes of love, AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness, living each day to its fullest, and dying with dignity.

This film, based on Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, tells the story of three couples as seen through Mark’s eyes and his video camera. Each of the three couples is serious in their relationship, but each has obstacles that it must overcome: Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is self-destructive in her drug addiction and her boyfriend, Roger (Adam Pascal), has just come out of six months of withdrawal. Concerns that he could lose her prevent him from fully committing to Mimi. Maureen (Idina Menzel) is a free-spirited egotist with “wandering eyes” and her girlfriend, Joanne (Tracie Thomas), is a rather uptight lawyer who demands commitment. Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his drag-queen boyfriend, Angel (Wilson Heredia) are limited by the unavoidable mortality of the advanced stages of AIDS.

Those who have seen a stage production of “Rent” may be surprised by the degree to which darkness pervades the film. The reality and detail of New York City settings and camera close-ups capture many serious moments that are easy to overlook onstage. For example, a mugging that seems almost comical onstage is brutal and unsettling in film: the actor is chased down and his bloodied face is shown close-up. Additionally, director Chris Columbus chose to slow the action down and put much more space between songs.

In doing so, he gives the audience a chance to reflect upon the gravity of each situation, while the original stage musical passes so quickly that many events do not fully soak in. A great deal of transitional music is spoken rather than sung, and Columbus makes use of crowd and atmospheric camera shots (with no text) that also add breathing space between musical numbers. What this breathing space generally does is to allow more time for the audience to react to the visual elements of this film. The cinematography, as well, is designed such that there are rarely still shots — the camera is constantly panning or zooming such that the world seemed to have little stability.

Living in such a brutal world, the characters find happiness through love and friendship. One particularly potent scene is of Collins and Angel going down the sidewalk together, being silly and in love while singing “I’ll Cover You.” The scene is amazingly sweet and clearly establishes their relationship as sincere, loving, and ecstatically happy. This is a brilliant move on Columbus’ part; it lends a level of character development and a deepening of sincerity within their relationship that is not as clear onstage.

As with any film, “Rent” has its flaws. Spoken lyrics, when left unmodified, give the impression of a particularly bad and uninspired poetry slam. While most of the cast, especially Martin as Collins, Dawson as Mimi, and Rapp as Mark stand out as excellent, Thomas as Joanne is rather contrived at times and Pascal as Roger has moments of rather bland acting. These flaws, however, do not overshadow the power of “Rent,” a film that floods its audience with messages of love and the obstacles we allow to get in its way. “Rent” inspires laughter, tears, and personal examination on a level that few films can match.