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"Rent" Movie Review

A Rousing Musical and One of the Year's Best Films


Adam Pascal and Rosario Dawson in "Rent."

© Sony Pictures
Read the synopsis of “Rent” and ‘sexy, spectacular, and one of the best movies of 2005’ may not be the words that immediately come to mind. But don’t make the mistake of judging “Rent” by the few lines used to sum up the film in the movie’s official synopsis. “Rent” can’t be defined in a matter of 25 words or less. There’s so much going on, so much to take in, it requires you to sit back and absorb the experience. And what an experience it is.

There’s hardly any spoken dialogue; “Rent” moves forward on the strength of its songs. Each number furthers the plot and reveals another aspect of a character. “Rent” performs a minor miracle in that it uses the musical genre to accomplish what few other films this year have been able to do: “Rent” makes audiences really care about each of the central characters. How many movies released in '05 can you honestly say that about? I say five, maybe six, but that’s stretching it.

The magical musical mystery tour that is “Rent” is vibrant, wickedly wild and immensely entertaining. It also runs audiences through the gamut of emotions. It’s a story about love, loss and undying friendship told by way of flashy, frantic musical numbers mixed with heart-wrenchingly sweet ballads and even a rousing, erotic number set in a strip club.

Based on writer/composer Jonathan Larson’s play, “Rent” is the riveting story of a group of young bohemians struggling to get through life in New York’s East Village circa 1989. It’s through would-be filmmaker Mark's (Anthony Rapp) ever-present camera that the story unspools. We quickly learn Mark's still moping over the end of his relationship with Maureen (Idina Menzel). Meanwhile performance artist Maureen has definitely moved on to other interests – she’s now dating a female attorney named Joanne (Tracie Thoms).

Roger (Adam Pascal), Mark’s roommate, is a guitar-playing hunk whose junkie girlfriend passed away from AIDS but not before infecting him with the disease. Exotic dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson in a break-through performance) has a thing for her upstairs neighbor, Roger, but he’s emotionally unavailable. It’s not until she reveals that she too is HIV-positive that their relationship heats up.

Tom Collins (Jesse L Martin) is a former professor who returns to the East Village and finds the love of his life, a drag queen appropriately named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who rescues him after he’s mugged and left bleeding in an alley outside Mark and Roger’s apartment.

Former friend Benny Coffin (Taye Diggs) has now joined the establishment by marrying into money. His wife’s family owns the apartment building Roger, Mark and Mimi live in along with the rest of the street. It’s Benny’s demand for the payment of rent that sets the story in motion.

It sounds incongruous after reading the above list of characters to say “Rent” is positive and uplifting, yet it’s true. Somehow “Rent” manages to be an upbeat, heartwarming story about a year in the life of this eclectic group of friends.

Director Chris Columbus (the same man who brought us “Home Alone”) and choreographer Keith Young benefit from the presence of all but two of the original Broadway cast. Newcomers Tracie Thoms and the amazing Rosario Dawson (who knew she could sing?) fit in nicely with the tight-knit, talented group. Because each of the actors, with the exception of Thoms and Dawson, is intimately familiar with the characters after having played them on stage, every element of their performances smack of authenticity.

Since we’re heavy into the ‘for your consideration/awards season’ time of year, I have a minor rant that I can’t keep bottled up any longer. “Rent” is a prime example of why Best Actor/Actress awards aren’t representative of the entertainment value of a film. Give me an ensemble award category any day of the week. To me, a cast award makes much more sense than singling out any individual performance. “Rent” wouldn’t have worked if any one performer missed the mark (which they don’t, this is an incredibly talented cast of actors/singers). The same holds true for two other fine examples of ensemble work from 2005: “Crash” and “The Upside of Anger.” Few actors are so good that if their supporting players can’t cut it, one actor can pull off a miracle and make a mediocre film into an outstanding one. How many times have you watched a film that’s ruined by bad casting of the supporting roles? It’s the entire ensemble that makes or breaks a movie. But this is really an argument for another time and place.

Mention AIDS, gay marriage, drug addition, and drag queens and some people will automatically tune out. This film includes all the above – and it’s a musical – so it may turn off mainstream audiences. “Rent” also requires you to embrace the idea New Yorkers wander the streets and subways singing and dancing. But for those open-minded enough to give it a chance, “Rent” is an experience not to be missed and one of the absolute best movie musicals of the past few decades.


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