“No day but today” feels like yesterday’s news in the long-aborning screen version of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning rock musical, “Rent.” Director Chris Columbus has pasted the grungy “La Boheme” update onto film with slavish respect for the original material but a shortage of stylistic imagination and raw emotions. Result is like watching a dancer with no rhythm; it approximates the moves but rarely gets an infectious groove on. Hardcore fans of the long-running Broadway show will constitute an automatic audience, but Sony is unlikely to lure the uninitiated in major numbers.
Premiered Off Broadway in 1996, the show connected with audiences via its melancholy romanticism and harnessing of the stark realities of AIDS, drugs, homelessness and life on the margins. There was the added poignancy of the tragedy of creator Larson, who died the night of final dress rehearsal, days before his 36th birthday. Eighth on the all-time Broadway list of long-runners at nearly 4,000 performances, “Rent” has now grossed more than $210 million from its New York engagement alone.
But the musical’s of-the-moment edge has faded. The East Village, where the story’s struggling artists, squatters, junkies and misfits reside, is now considerably more gentrified; AIDS treatment has evolved radically; and the gloomy shadow of Reaganomics and yuppie greed that hung heavily over big-city fringe-dwellers has been replaced by more insidious sociopolitical specters.
While “Rent” is not as obsolete as other film versions of zeitgeist-specific musicals — like “Godspell” or “Hair” — nor as leaden as last year’s “Phantom of the Opera,” it feels past its prime.
The muscular treatment by ace music producer Rob Cavallo, best known for his work with Green Day, supplies driving power to the songs that’s rarely matched in the narrative, while Columbus’ cluttered idea of how to film a musical seems to reference “Fame” in its repeated dancing on tables and seemingly endless running through trash-strewn streets holding hands.
The film opens with the show’s best known song, “Seasons of Love,” which onstage kicks off the second act but here strives for emotional peaks with characters we have yet to meet.
Columbus then pumps up the title song into an angry bohemian anthem, with main characters and hoards of extras railing against the insanity of modern life from their fire escapes in an Alphabet City saturated with graffiti, rubble and trashcan fires.
The show has always been something of an inelegant narrative jumble held together by empathy for its characters. Screenwriter Stephen Chbosky does little to alter that, supplying threadbare dialogue that stitches one song to the next without weaving a dramatic fabric.
The central thread of downtowners battling to survive, connect and cultivate some kind of artistic purity in an increasingly soulless corporate world is still there. But the threat of eviction, of being forced to sell out, or of succumbing to illness or drug addiction never acquires much urgency.
Chbosky’s chief effort to update the material — and the movie’s most dialogue-heavy scene — is a protracted country club engagement party for lesbian couple Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Joanne (Tracie Thoms), seemingly designed to mine the gay-marriage debate for contempo relevance.
Forays into an AIDS support group attended by Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his drag queen lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) have a pallid, seen-it-before feel and the film only acquires emotional weight when death touches the band of friends directly late in the action. While aspiring filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp) remains the story’s designated guide, shooting events for his 16mm documentary, the character lacks dimension here, leaving the film rudderless.
Too often, Columbus adheres to a familiar music-video idiom: When stymied songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal) recaps his brief, blazing success and doomed love in “One Song Glory,” the scene seems like recycled Aerosmith; the same character’s escape to New Mexico in “What You Own” appears to have been lifted from the Bon Jovi ’80s vaults.
Perhaps the most successful efforts to breathe new visual life into the numbers come in “Tango: Maureen,” which shifts into a fantasy of formation tango dancers on a marble-floored subway station; and half of “Out Tonight,” in which heroin-addicted gogo-dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson) does some steamy bump-and-grinding in micro-shorts in a sleaze bar, abandoned too early for yet more exuberant running through the streets.
While the decision to enlist most of the show’s original cast (Rapp, Pascal, Martin, Heredia, Menzel and Taye Diggs all created their characters on stage) will please diehard Rentheads, it raises awkward questions as to why these people, some of them clearly pushing 40, are still floundering in artsy aimlessness. While there’s a general charisma shortage, the actors all do OK, with Dawson, Thoms and Martin finding more emotional nuances than most. But Columbus and Chbosky have not succeeded in making them vivid figures for anyone not already invested in the characters through prior familiarity.
On the tech side, Howard Cummings’ production design trowels on the gritty texture and costumer Aggie Guerard Rodgers outfits the cast in thrift-store boho chic; Stephen Goldblatt’s widescreen lensing is disappointingly tame and undynamic for a musical, often blighted by poor composition.