Upstaged

'Rent' newcomers steal the show from Broadway veterans in an otherwise weary production.

MovieReview C-

November 23, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the movie version of Rent, Rosario Dawson - as exotic dancer Mimi - and Tracie Thoms as Joanne - the lawyer lover of a bisexual performance artist and drama queen - are sensational. They're attention-getters in the best sense. When Dawson slinks down the steps of a strip club or Thoms belts out her outrage at her partner's wandering eye, they fuse their avidity for performing with the passion of characters who, for different reasons, just have to make a scene.

But even these breakout actors can't break away from the mawkishness of this East Village version of La Boheme, played on the big screen as a late-'80s period piece.

Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical offers an ode - or is it howl? - to arty friends helping arty friends confront drug addiction, HIV and a buppie sometime friend (Taye Diggs) who helps his landlord boss and father-in-law buy up blocks of seedy property to develop a digital industrial park.

Director Chris Columbus, whose strong suit is casting (witness the Harry Potter films), uses six of the original cast members along with Dawson and Thoms. When Columbus lines them up on a bare stage to sing "Seasons of Love," the director expresses his affection for them fully, elegantly and movingly. It's a simple and exhilarating tribute to actors who know how to express themselves in song and can make their bodies eloquent even when they're standing still. For a fleeting moment or two you think they'll transcend the sentimental, self-congratulatory material.

No such luck. The characters relentlessly celebrate their status as struggling artists and tortured street saints or sneer at middle-class values. They scream their romantic come-ons and conflicts in one would-be showstopper after another. (Actually, these numbers do stop the show, with the musical equivalent of brute force. The show just has a hard time starting up again.) In Team America (2004), the wiseacre creators of South Park envision a hit musical called Lease: It ends with the ensemble proclaiming "Everyone has AIDS!" as a huge red ribbon dominates the otherwise spare, pseudo-gritty stage. In Rent, everyone really does seem to have AIDS. Half the major characters earn noble-suffering scenes for their pain; the other half, noble mourning or support scenes.

If you're not a "Renthead" - one of those people who turned the show into a sensation by seeing it repeatedly - you may want to rent Team America and keep Lease in the back of your mind. Otherwise, all a turned-off viewer can do is count the many ways the movie tries to overpower, flatter and then guilt-trip the audience.

Too heightened by half, the major love stories involve an HIV-infected singer, Roger (Adam Pascal), resisting HIV-infected dancer Mimi, while Joanne, her girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Maureen's ex-boyfriend, Mark (Anthony Rapp), tango out their similarities and differences.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is a tale of affairs and relationships overlapping, interlocking and uniting in a common front of friendship and idealism. Similarly, somewhere in the middle of all the musical pop sociology lies a valid, gripping subject: a group of people at the point in their lives when even getting a job to pay the bills feels like a compromise.

But the rendering reeks of inauthenticity. And the original cast can't help Columbus out on that score. Though still youthful, they're a lot older than when they started in these roles. They bring an emotional weightiness and weariness around the edges that the slender pop riffs can't bear. Jesse L. Martin is a big, bounding, lovable performer; it's fun to see him slither around a subway car. Unfortunately, he's playing a philosophy prof who hops from one adjunct academic job to another - though Martin looks ready for tenure.

Maybe on stage a canny director could still get away with all this. In the movie, the unconverted will hold their ears as the banal tunes blare out in multichannel sound. And they'll wince as the camera closes in on every heart-tugging moment - including, embarrassingly, the twitch of a hand that turns Rent into La Boheme with a happy ending.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Rent (Columbia Pictures)

Starring Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Fredi Walker, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp and Taye Diggs.

Directed by Chris Columbus.

Rated PG-13.

Time 135 minutes.

Review C-

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