There are people, no doubt, who spend hours looking for insights into the meaning of life and love by parsing every line of "Rent," as they did a few years ago with "Moulin Rouge," and before that with "The Phantom of the Opera." Going into the movie I was afraid that I, a New Yorker, a prisoner of irony and an effete Easterner if ever there was one, would spend the entire two hours and fifteen minutes chortling into the back of my hand at this story of life, death and love among the artists down in that magic corner just off Tompkins Square park.
Instead, somehow invigorated by the boldness of the musical's eagerness to pound us with every conceit and cliché of the genre, I gave myself up to it and actually had a good time. The multiplicity of stories in "Rent" comes from that other cliehé, proximity. Roger and Mark (Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp) live in an illegal loft just above Mimi (Rosario Dawson); their friends and lovers and former lovers, all evidently living just around the corner, make up the rest of the cast, including Idina Menzel as Maureen, a performance artist, and her new girlfriend Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Their former friend Benny (Taye Diggs) now owns the building and wants to evict them. And Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and his boy/girlfriend the transvestite Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) are the, well, the moral center of the story.
Everyone sings and dances, mostly in groups, and because a few of the actors are really good at it - Mr. Martin, Ms. Dawson and Ms. Menzel particularly - the fact that every song has the same beat and mostly the same harmonic and dramatic structure is not the problem you might expect. The book, music and lyrics of the show were all written by Jonathan Larson, barely translated to the screen by Stephen Chbosky, choreographed by Keith Young and directed by the expert Chris Columbus, who keeps things moving fast enough that we don't have time or energy to punch holes in the overlapping plots. Though there isn't an original thought or emotion or even a story in the film, somehow we set our critical faculties aside and just enjoy it.
And "Rent" is an enjoyable film, even when we see through to the little man behind the curtain. The songs are pleasant, well crafted and all use skillful choral harmonies to build their power. The actors are attractive - I kept saying to myself of Mr. Martin, "I can't believe he was the detective in 'Law and Order!'" Yes, two people die, though I was unable to shed any tears for them, and even though supposed filmmaker Mark has no idea of how to use his Bolex I even forgave him that. In fact I forgave the film just about everything, but I'll be damned if I know why.