It's easy for the wistful film geek to imagine a dozen ways that Jonathan Larson's rock opera, Rent, could have been better transposed to the silver screen by its originally slated director, Spike Lee. Though Lee's work has been increasingly spotty, it's safe to say his adaptation would have at least been interesting or (we'd hope) confrontational. Instead, we have an oversaturated, manipulative mess from Chris Columbus, director of Hollywood hack jobs including Bicentennial Man, Nine Months and the first two Home Alones.
To be fair, anyone adapting a musical to the big screen is walking a tightrope. How to maintain the intimacy and integrity of the original while still exploiting the cinematic possibilities? Columbus, sadly, gets it all wrong. The manufactured squalor of his phony early-'90s Greenwich Village looks more mythical than real (even the grime is meticulously placed), and the dialogue is utterly stagy. With so many nods to the artificiality of theater, Columbus' faithfulness to the play tends to belie its reason for being on celluloid. On the other hand, the director shows an egregious propensity for sentimental montages and needless flashbacks that do utilize the film medium, but only detract from the original content. Rent is in constant flux between its theatrical origins and cinematic ambitions, and it masters neither approach.
The movie also reveals that Larson's baby might not hold up as the masterpiece it's been hailed as. The narrative, inspired by Puccini's classic opera La Boheme, follows a menagerie of bohemians musicians, filmmakers, performance artists, strippers, drag queens and junkies through a turbulent year at the dawn of the 1990s. They search for success and love on a dilapidated street, while the shrouds of poverty and AIDS hang over the city. The story's social commentary is undermined by its false idealism, and the "artsy" characters none of whom ever appear talented at what they do seem more in love with the idea of bohemia than actually being bohemian.
But these are minor quibbles when compared with the grand problem of Columbus' adaptation. Onstage, the epic tale is told almost entirely through song. Only a couple of times does the film employ this daring method. For the most part, the movie substitutes the operatic style of the stage version with bland spoken dialogue from Perks of Being a Wallflower scribe Stephen Chbosky.
It's these kinds of faults that make the film version of Rent a safe, sterilized disappointment and overpower any strengths, namely the passionate, energetic performances by the ensemble cast. But in Columbus' lowest-common-denominator cinema, it's hard to find a scene that isn't an insipid eye-roller or a song that hasn't been tailor-shot for MTV. Great acting can only go so far.