With a single blow of their satirical hammer, Trey Parker and Matt Stone obliterated Rent with Team America: World Police's "Everyone Has AIDS," a song that perfectly captures the Broadway phenomenon's jarring, almost surreal juxtaposition of "gritty" subject matter and gee-whiz pep rally execution. But someone neglected to inform Sony, which is now releasing a long-awaited, long-overdue film adaptation that plays like Last Exit To Brooklyn as reinterpreted by Up With People. Yes, Rent is the movie about AIDS, heroin addiction, homosexuality, strippers, marijuana, cross-dressing, and bisexuality audiences can take their grandparents to go see safe in the knowledge that any lingering trace of danger or authenticity has been carefully removed by director/co-writer Chris Columbus, who previously proved his countercultural mettle with Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films.
A pop-rock update of Puccini's La Boheme, Rent follows a year in the tune-filled lives of a pair of roommates (Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal) and their close-knit group of pals as they deal with drug addiction, relationships, poverty, and the lingering specter of AIDS. Taye Diggs plays a former Bohemian turned sellout yuppie scum who wants to violate the sacred scuzziness of the gang's neighborhood by establishing a cyber-salon, no doubt with its own bungee-jumping emporium and high-end grunge fashion shop.
When it made its Broadway debut in 1996, Jonathan Larson's Tony and Pulitzer-winning musical was hailed as progressive, but now it looks like a remnant of the distant past, a hilariously dated time capsule fatally unaware that its cultural moment has long since passed. Part of that's unavoidable. Rent is, after all, a 1996 musical set in 1989 and 1990. But why on Earth does Columbus' misguided adaptation feel like a bad rock musical from the early '80s? Why is its tormented rocker less Kurt Cobain than Rick Springfield?
For all its talk of sex and drugs, Rent feels strangely innocent and its characters seem peculiarly sexless. When stripper Rosario Dawson flashes a packet of white powder, it's easy to imagine she's toting fairy dust rather than heroin. With Columbus in the director's chair, it's all just one big game of make-believe, with plucky Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland surrogates putting on a big, sexually amorphous, crazily transgressive show. Maybe that's why this hopelessly stage-bound bit of strained Gen-X whimsy ekes so little genuine pathos out of its AIDS-stricken troupers' looming mortality: its characters seem less fated to die than simply get transported offstage.