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November 29, 2005

Bohemia lives in Columbus’s shockingly strong Rent

Why would anyone—even the director of Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter movies—open Rent with the song “Seasons of Love”? In the musical, “Seasons of Love” opens Act Two, and for good reason. Easily the most maudlin number in the entire production, one almost needs the buffer of an intermission to believe it’s part of the show.

When Chris Columbus’s film version of Rent began with “Seasons of Love,” I was appalled. My jaw hit the floor when Mark (Anthony Rapp) spoke his first few lines, because hardly anything is spoken at all in the musical. Even the phone messages left by Mark’s annoying family become mini-songs.

I didn’t understand the purpose of setting the film in 1989, especially because the stage play seems to take place a few years later. When the characters launched into the title song within the first 10 minutes of the story, I was ready to abandon all hope.

I’m still not sure how they pulled it off, but besides these inconsistencies, the film version of Rent is not the desecration of Jonathan Larson’s musical I expected. The original cast, most of whom return, pour themselves into their roles, and the newcomers (Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracie Thoms as Joanne) easily earn their keep. Thoms is especially gifted, infusing the show-stopper “Take Me or Leave Me” with genuine affection and frustration.

Rent (the musical) follows a group of friends—some straight, some gay, some HIV-positive, some not—in the East Village over the course of a year. It’s loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, which makes the film an adaptation of an adaptation. So where does this movie get off being so good?

Columbus’s Rent works because the most vital songs remain. I would’ve liked to see what Columbus could do with “Christmas Bells”—with its jubilant refrain of “It’s beginning to snow” and clever dovetailing of several fragments of the plot—but, oh well.

Lesser songs, like the X-rated “Contact” and Joanne’s slight “We’re Okay,” always felt transitional, even if they were near-perfect examples of songcraft. As much as I hate to say it, Columbus was wise to excise them. (Purists may carp, but c’mon. The film runs two hours and 15 minutes already.)

Screenwriter Stephen Chbosky takes some liberties with chronology, and that necessitates changing the lyrics. One example: Where “Christmas Eve” and “I believe” were once rhymed, “Christmas Day” and “I must say” are substituted. If this sounds petty, it won’t feel that way to die-hard fans. I’ve always considered myself a “Renthead,” so it’s a major credit to the film that I didn’t mind the changes that much.

Columbus and Chbosky let the plot unfold more slowly than Larson did, introducing characters much later in the story. It’s a bit of a betrayal to the original Rent’s bohemian, balls-to-the-wall aesthetic, but dramatically, it works. And it makes even more sense for film, which has the luxury of following the characters to work and into their apartments with greater ease than the show.

However, some differences don’t scan. As Roger (Adam Pascal) drives to Sante Fe in the moving “What You Own,” his hair blows in the wind like the cheesiest ’80s hair-metal music video you never saw. And while I cringed to watch Mark insensitively film the Life Support meeting with his clunky 8mm camera, I’m not sure that’s the reaction Chris Columbus intended.

And it boils my blood to think that vain, unfunny Sarah Silverman was rewarded with the part of Alexi Darling, a character who’s heard but not seen in the play. Of all of the people who would have appreciated this cameo (like—I dunno—Daphne Rubin-Vega or Fredi Walker, who played the original Mimi and Joanne, respectively) throwing the part away on such an untalented performer was a waste.

But oh, the things that go right! Columbus reimagines “Tango: Maureen” as an inspired fantasy sequence, intercutting between a run-down performance space and elegant ballroom. Setting “Take Me or Leave Me” at a commitment ceremony for Maureen and Joanne is a nice touch, even if it seems too topical for 1989. Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) is given free range to rock on “Today 4 U,” and rock she does, banging her drumsticks on the wall, on a dirty tabletop, even against an exposed pipe. That sort of creativity in the face of adversity is what Rent is all about.

The men of the cast—Mark, Roger, and Collins (Jesse L. Martin)—have never seemed chummier; their easy rapport practically leaps off the screen. And if Columbus allows a few too many jokes about Maureen’s (Idina Menzel) desertion of Mark for another woman, his borderline homophobia can be excused for the poignant portrayal of friendship between people of all sexual orientations.

The camera movements during “Over the Moon” and “La Vie Bohème” are brilliant. The former provides a priceless aerial view of Maureen as she sucks the milk from the udder of an imaginary cow. And the slow motion at the end of “La Vie Boheme” feels like a revelation, a retort to those who wondered why Rent had to become a movie at all.

And if Columbus reprises “Seasons of Love” twice before he decides he’s squeezed the soundtrack marketability out of it, well, nobody’s perfect. But as movie adaptations go, Rent—just like its cast—is pitch-perfect.