By Kyle | June 10, 2007
Kyle Smith review of “Rent”
134 minutes/Rated PG-13 (drugs, sexuality, profanity).
It’ll be fun to watch the culture nobs who made “Rent” a hit play as they backpedal: We never said it was a masterpiece. Uh-uh. Not us. Because the screen version’s Drama Club dorkiness is going to ruin the “Rent” brand of alleged downtown cool for everyone. If anything can re-shevel the disheveled multitudes of Alphabet City and chase the hipsters into pleated khakis and sweater sets, it’s this film.
With its cast of young hopefuls trying to make it big in a bad place, “Rent,” which is set in 1989-90, wants to be “Fame,” only with AIDS. But if “Fame” reimagined the urban musical, “Rent” un-reimagines it, sprinkling showbiz fairydust into the most ludicrous situations. AIDS support groups burst into song and a junkie who collapses on the street is brought upstairs and laid dramatically on someone’s breakfast table, because they didn’t have hospitals in 1990.
All of the ersatz “energy” of “Rent” adds up to far less power than any one scene in “Fame”: Recall the young comic bombing with the same material that once killed, or Irene Cara getting tricked into peeling off her top at a sleazy screen test. The overbearingly talented kids of “Rent” (now in their mid-30s) sing about the glory of “LIVing with! LIVing with! LIVing with! Not dying from disease!” Good Lord, what happened to the cynicism we rely on from American youth?
I had a good time at the movie; the more drama-queeny things got, the more I laughed. I also like the songs and a lot of these actors can really belt out a number (especially Tracie Thoms as Joanne and Idina Menzel as her lover, Maureen). But I also possess an alarming number of albums played on Lite FM. The reason anyone ever thought this can of corn carried a genuine note of the tragic is not because of anything in it but because of the death of its composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson on the eve of the first preview.
What is the most absurd failed attempt to be edgy? Could be Mimi’s (Rosario Dawson) job at this town’s first no-nudity strip joint, or the sight of Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his doomed tranny boyfriend Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) skipping down the street like Laverne and Shirley. When Mark (Anthony Rapp, a man so white he makes me look like Marvin Gaye) sings about “La Vie Boheme” in a number staged like a 1980 Dr. Pepper commercial and winds himself into some sort of Black Power salute, it’s enough to make Al Sharpton move to Topeka.
That number is the essence of the movie, from its hysterical overstatement (”This Is Calcutta”) to its catalogue of all things supposedly wild, including such incendiary choices as tofu, huevos rancheros, yoga and Maya Angelou. If Susan Sontag (also name-checked) crawls out of her grave demanding to add a coda to “Notes on Camp,” you’ll know why.
As Larson’s songs hint at several points, the artsy types who prowl the East Village looking for innocent citizens on whom to inflict their performance art are just the children of Westchester dentists-bobos playing boho. They aren’t starving, they’re starring in a poverty fashion show.
“Rent” showcases the hipster trend of getting nostalgic about grime and crime: it’s slumtimental. Subway cars are covered with the graffiti that was gone before 1989. The set decorator even tags indoors, bringing to mind the time Howard Dean campaigned in New York in front of a fake graffiti backdrop specially painted for the occasion. Director Chris Columbus says in the press notes that he “lived in New York for 17 years in the 1980s”- times were so tough that decades ran 70 percent too long - adding, “we were dirt poor.” In reality Columbus sold his first screenplay when he was a sophomore at NYU and got rich before he turned 25, with his script for “Gremlins.”
The oppressive force Columbus and the characters reject is purely imaginary. The counterculture long ago became the culture and Maya Angelou delivers her doggerel at presidential inaugurations. When the gang ventures up to a land they suppose to be evil - corporate Midtown - the first suit they meet (Sarah Silverman) instead coos, “I love your footage! Reminded me of my Berkeley days, fighting the good fight.” If the ruling class is on your side, how much of a rebel are you?