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Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Rent is the alternative family Thanksgiving movie. While the other openings at the Essex Outlet Cinemas this week are more warm and fuzzy family fare, Rent is for those who are not cut out for what more traditional offerings like Yours, Mine and Ours or Just Friends have to offer. Essex Outlet Cinemas staffer Josh was seeing the movie for his second time of the day when I arrived. A devoted Rent aficionado, Josh was planning to see it again after the showing we were about to go into was over. Now that is devotion ~ or madness. I was beginning to wonder what I was getting myself into. It was starting to sound like some kind of cinematic crack.

So I can definitely say that Rent is not for everyone. It is not told in a traditional way, though it is far more linear in storytelling style than say Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. It follows the episodic interactions of eight friends over the course of a year, all in musical vignettes that could for the most part be viewed as rock videos independent of one another and still be vibrant set pieces. The story itself is strung together with minimal spoken narrative and that may prove challenging to moviegoers who think of films in much the same way they think of television ~ what is familiar is what is comfortable, and Rent is definitely not about being comfortable.

Much has been made of Rent's backstory over the years. Playwright and Musical Composer Jonathan Larson had invested his heart and soul into creating the original musical only to die at age 44 of an unexpected aortic dissection on the night of the final dress rehearsal before the play was to open. He later posthumously won two Tony Awards in 1996 for the play Rent as Best Book (Musical) and as Best Original Musical Score, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year. The real life drama behind the play's origins have in some ways hurt Rent, the movie, because it has been treated with such reverence in the past nine years that it has developed a mystique that is hard to live up to for the expectant viewer. Adding to this expectation is the fact that most of the original stage cast is on hand to reprise their Broadway roles and this generates even more promise that what we are going to see will be an extraordinary cinematic experience. And in many ways it is, although it is sometimes a disappointment because there is no way it is going to create the same energy as a live performance no matter how hard it tries.

Taking place from Christmas Eve 1989 to Christmas Eve 1990, Rent focuses its' story through the lens of Mark Cohen's camera. Mark (perfectly cast Anthony Rapp) is a struggling documentarian living in New York City's East Village as a squatter, sharing a loft with his best friend and wannabe singer/songwriter Roger Davis (Adam Pascal) and sometime-tenant Tom Collins (played quite movingly by Law and Order's Jesse L. Martin). Mark has been recently dumped by his girlfriend Maureen Johnson (Idina Mentzel, 2004's Best Actress Tony Award Winner) for a corporate lawyer named Joanne Jefferson (Cold Case's Tracie Thoms). Somehow the running gag of mentioning Mark being dumped by his girlfriend for a woman seems oddly out of place in this story since it is clear early on that Mark's roommate Tom is gay and his new partner is a drag queen named Angel (the energetically breathtaking Wilson Jermaine Heredia), both of whom don't raise an eyebrow in this crowd. Both are also HIV+ as is Roger, a recovering drug addict, and they live above Mimi Marquez (Sin City's Rosario Dawson), a heroin user who works as an exotic dancer at a place called the Cat Scratch Club. Let's just say this is not a place Barbara Bush is most likely going to be hanging around any time soon.

This year of living dangerously is made more miserable by Benny Coffin (the always suave Taye Diggs), the owner of the slum buildings that make up the block that this band of friends call their home. He is determined to evict them all to create a multimedia recording studio, business center, and high-end apartments despite his own (former) friendships with the down-and-out residents in his buildings. Benny has no qualms about cutting the heat and power to these tenants on Christmas Eve, and yet he is also willing to make deals. If Roger and Mark will stop Maureen, a performance artist, from leading a high profile protest against his plan for this bit of self-serving urban renewal he will let them live rent free in the new building and use the recording studio whenever they want.

There is really little tension involved in whether the boys will take Benny up on his offer because it is already obvious early in the film that the one thing each of these friends have in common is their loyalty and deep commitment to one other, even if they happen to be currently on the outs. Mark comments upon hearing his stereotypical Jewish New York parents' message on his answering machine that whenever he wonders why he lives in a dump, with holes in the ceiling, no heat, no lights, and no money he listens to them and he knows why. Then he gives his roommate a hug.

Mark is a mensch. He films the homeless in his neighborhood and lends them a sense of dignity, he accompanies his HIV+ friends to their support group meetings and records them as a way of giving them a voice to say the things they would otherwise not, and he even helps his ex-girlfriend by working with her current girlfriend on the wiring for her protest performance. This leads to a terrific song and dance number in the film between Rapp and Thoms as they engage in the funny and fast-paced Tango Maureen, examining their separate and yet eerily familiar experiences with their shared lover.

Of course each character has at least one "BIG NUMBER" and each peels away layers of character development and plot movement in just a few verses. There is not a weak voice or performance in the group, but, subjectively, I have to say I was most blown away by Jesse L. Martin. Obviously, in a musical that is filled with people with AIDS and that takes place in the '80s there is bound to be at least one tragedy, and when it arrives Martin's musical eulogy is a soulful gospel rendition of a pop number sung earlier in the movie. I can tell you there was more than one person openly sobbing in the theater during this song, but it was as much because of the sheer beauty of his voice and the blending of his words with a chorus made up of the rest of the cast as impromptu back-up and emotional support to his character as it was to the tragic circumstances of the moment.

By Christmas Eve 1990 much has happened to the group. Lovers have split up and reunited, friends have come, gone, and returned, and the biggest lesson that all have learned ~ even if not spoken ~ is that the families they thought they didn't have a year earlier were there all along. The just hadn't recognized it yet.

For a lot of people who live their lives feeling on the outside of the "Happy Days" spectrum of family life, for whatever reason, Rent offers them a peek at another alternative. It is a celebration of the bonds of friendship and suggests that family is a lot more than just about blood. It is a choice about who you let into your life and into your heart.

Rent is a rare opportunity to see Broadway performers on film. So often when musicals are transfered from the stage to film the temptation is to replace them with "name" movie stars instead of paying homage to the original actors who brought life to the characters. Here is a chance to see as close to the author's vision for his work as one could hope to see, with the voices he picked to sing his songs. And they are beautiful songs and beautiful voices indeed.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen and heard on the big screen and with the powerful sound system they have at the Essex Outlet Cinemas, so see it now and resist the urge to wait to Rent it later. As they say in the movie, "No day but today." So grab your coat, your boots, scarf, ice scraper, and head on out. The popcorn's fresh and warm, the coffee's brewing, and the Essex Outlet Cinemas is a whole lot closer than Broadway.

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