Rent

on November 23, 2005 by Annlee Ellingson
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Opening in the wake of 2002's "Chicago" and last holiday's "Phantom of the Opera," Sony's musical "Rent," along with Universal's upcoming "Producers," is riding the wave of a tentative genre revival. But, with arguably dated topicality -- the focus on AIDS has shifted to Africa -- it remains to be seen whether this lease can attract an audience beyond its admittedly rabid fan base of Rentheads. (In fact, a recent U.N. report reveals HIV infection in the U.S. is on the rise, so perhaps this cinematic adaptation of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Broadway hit is as timely as ever.)

A contemporary rendition of Puccini's "La Boheme" by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died of an aneurysm on the eve of the play's first preview in 1996, "Rent" follows a handful of 1980s East Village bohemians as they struggle to express themselves and find love amid poverty, drug addiction and disease. Assembled mostly from the original production, the cast demonstrates a clear comfort with, if not ownership of, the material. Among particular standouts, Jesse L. Martin, now starring in TV's "Law & Order," serves as the film's moral center as philosophy professor Tom Collins, exuding an openness and warmth with the physicality of an athlete and a twinkle in his eye. And, as performance artist Maureen, Idina Menzel, who's since stalked the boards as the Wicked Witch of the West in "Wicked," radiates an intimidating mix of confidence, self-indulgence and seduction.

Moreover, director Chris Columbus infuses a kinetic energy to the material, moving the action to the streets of New York City. But onscreen, the musical numbers at times feel episodic and the narrative loses momentum. Onstage, these interludes perhaps serve to bridge one scene to the next. In film, one doesn't need these transitions -- you'd just cut to the next scene. Starring Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Tracie Thoms. Directed by Chris Columbus. Written by Stephen Chbosky. Produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan. A Columbia release. Musical/Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving drugs and sexuality and for some strong language. Running time: 135 min

Tags: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Tracie Thoms. Directed by Chris Columbus. Written by Stephen Chbosky. Produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan. A Columbia release. Musical/Drama, material, musical, philosophy, physicality, athlete
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