It shouldn’t make sense that Mimi (Rosario Dawson) performs in a strip club where none of the strippers takes anything off and where a crowd of well-heeled, middle-aged fans of both genders are delighted anyway, but Rosario is such a sexy, powerful singer that you overlook the oddness of the situation.
It also shouldn’t make sense that most of the original Broadway cast – now a decade too wizened to play struggling twentysomethings – returns for the movie (Dawson is one of two newcomers). But they perform with passion and conviction. These actors know and love this material, so we buy it – just like we buy that a guy might sing a show tune while riding his bike or we buy the concept of a bunch of young, hip New Yorkers, none of whom ever wears black.
Rent is set in 1989 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where eight impoverished friends – several of them struggling with AIDS – try to make their marks (the story is borrowed from the opera La Boheme). They break up and make up, all while singing tunes that are 40 percent rock/60 percent Broadway.
Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia are the most soulful performers, playing Tom and Angel, a gay couple whose tight bond is the rock of the show. Martin’s tribute to a dead friend, "I’ll Cover You," is the film’s emotional highlight.
The film’s numbers work because they’re great songs, but there is a nagging sense that scenes could be more powerful if director Chris Columbus knew where to put the camera. As in the Columbus-directed first two Harry Potter films, there’s a sense he hasn’t wrecked the material but hasn’t done much to reimagine it for the movies, either.
A few of his changes are helpful (the biggest: Every word is sung onstage, but the dialogue is spoken in the film), but if Columbus had a concept for the movie, it’s not evident, and many of his decisions feel random. When characters break into show tunes at the drop of a hat, we’re being asked to suspend disbelief, but that requires a director who assures us we can trust his handling of the material, and that’s not the case here.
On the other hand, Columbus is the guy who decided to stick with most of the original performers, and that was a surprisingly good idea. When he points the camera at them and lets them do their stuff, they deliver. In those moments, Rent sings.
—Chris Hewitt (KRT)