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Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005)

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  • Noel Vera
    Rant Noel Vera I like the theory that operas actually need their relatively melodramatic plots. It s the nature of the medium to heighten emotions, and nothing
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 6 12:58 PM
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      Rant

      Noel Vera

      I like the theory that operas actually need their relatively
      melodramatic plots. It's the nature of the medium to heighten
      emotions, and nothing inspires (or tempts) a composer more than some
      extreme situation calling for the expression of intense feelings
      (you don't see many operas written about, for example, accountants
      doing an audit). It's not so much a flaw in operas, I think, as it
      is an element that helps them break through to a dramatic level few
      other art forms can touch. If Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" or
      Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme" both have to die for their beloved
      after years of suffering and heartbreak, that's not some silly
      convention you have to endure again and again but a meticulously
      prepared and carefully timed moment allowing the composer to pour
      his heart out; and, far as I know, an outpouring from a Puccini or a
      Verdi is all the excuse you'll ever need to listen.

      The problem of "Rent" onstage, I imagine (I haven't seen it
      onstage), is that it's Puccini's premise without the music (okay,
      Puccini took his scenario from Henri Murger's "Scénes de la Vie de
      Bohéme"). One thing (maybe the only thing) that justifies Jonathan
      Larson's modern-day Manhattan version (it's set in Alphabet City, a
      rough neighborhood that has recently seen a surge in upscale
      housing) is the introduction of AIDS. Talk about upping the ante
      from Puccini--not only is the heroine dying, but half the cast and a
      good number of bystanders as well (this was in 1996, years after
      Norman Rene and Craig Lucas' film "Longtime Companion," our own
      Laurice Guillen's "The Dolzura Cortez Story," and Tony Kushner's
      epic play "Angels in America" dealt with the subject in their own
      more thorough and more profound ways).

      The musical was a hit (it probably helped that Larson died of an
      aortic aneurysm not long before it opened); a full nine years passed
      before the production could be brought to the big screen and now
      here it is, with most of the original cast looking a touch too old
      for their tragic-youth roles, and AIDS being less the ostensible
      subject (it's almost like a period detail) than is the idea of the
      endangered liberal. There's some poignancy to this--it's difficult
      in fact to avoid poignancy--but the real danger is in the musical
      slipping from poignancy into bathos, and Chris Columbus with his
      elephantine sense of subtlety does precisely that. Caution might
      have been a better attitude to adopt in approaching this material;
      instead Columbus adopts sincerity--lots and lots of sincerity with
      sugar on top. He has huge production numbers involving dozens of
      extras to "open up" the play, swooning crane shots to approximate, I
      suppose, the swooning you're suppose to feel, and cameras zooming
      into close-ups to catch every drop of sweat popping out of the
      straining singers' faces.

      Columbus, who made a sentimental sitcom out of "The Bicentennial
      Man" and painfully flat and obvious kiddie fare out of the first two
      Harry Potter books, would have been my last choice to do a musical,
      much less this kind of rock musical. I'd imagine Jonathan Demme or
      Carroll Ballard or Joss Whedon (whose "Once More With Feeling"--
      his "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" musical episode--is probably the best
      recent musical I've seen) would have done a better job; even Ken
      Russell, whose "Tommy" was a mess--but at least a mess with
      testicles and a real eye for imagery--would have been a more
      interesting choice.

      Beyond Columbus--though lord knows, it's difficult to look beyond
      Columbus' cluelessness--most of the actors deliver on or even
      transcend their mostly problematical characters. Anthony Rapp as
      Mark the filmmaker has the blandest looks, but also has a clever
      number with newcomer Tracie Thoms as Joanne, his ex-girlfriend's new
      lesbian lover ("The Maureen Tango"); Idina Menzel is wonderfully,
      exuberantly self-centered as the Maureen Mark and Joanne do their
      tense dance over; newcomer Rosario Dawson (though hardly new to
      those who remember her in (frankly the only thing worth seeing
      there) "Sin City") lends sensuality and (as she puts it in one song)
      a sweet behind to the tragic Mimi; best of all is Jessie L. Martin
      as Tom Collins, whose agonized eulogy for his dead love is the most
      moving (in a relatively unforced, unpumped-up manner) moment in the
      film.

      I'm not as crazy about Idina Menzel as Angel; not so much with his
      performance (which is simple and unaffected), as with the concept of
      him popping up at the right moment every time to offer consolation
      when someone's just been mugged (an Angel's consolation--get it?),
      or ten thousand dollars when someone's in need of food, or a
      supportive shoulder when someone needs somewhere to cry on. And Adam
      Pascal as Roger--heard he was fiery and passionate onstage; onscreen
      he just seems petulant and spoiled (wouldn't be surprise if this was
      Columbus' fault).

      The ending is embarrassing, to put it politely (skip the rest of
      this paragraph if you plan--which I don't recommend--to see this
      picture): a year after which the band of brothers has scattered
      Mimi, as in the classic opera (and as with almost every heroine in
      classic opera), comes back to die--but doesn't; Tom loses his
      professor job and for money wires the ATM machine to deliver cash on
      demand; Roger returns after a year of moody soul-searching to sing
      his one song, and after all that buildup and heightened expectations
      it's downright infuriating to find out his masterpiece is yet
      another power ballad ("It's not much but I spent a year at it," he
      offers as a kind of apology); and Mark quits his well-paying news
      job to finish his longstanding film, which turns out to be a not
      very well-made home movie. All that sturm und drang, just to arrive
      at this pipsqueak of a finish--you want to toss your bag of popcorn
      at the screen and walk out of the picture, only you realize that the
      picture's already over, and you have to leave anyway; Columbus has
      to steal even that privilege away from you.

      (First published in Businessworld, 3/30/06)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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