But RENT's problems go deeper than a misguided director's attempt to recreate a theater atmosphere in a movie. None of the characters leave much of an impression, because actual characterization has been reduced to mere labels. Mimi? Heroin-addicted stripper. Tom? Anarchist, HIV-positive, um, professor? Grad student? Something academic. I'm still unsure. Mark? Jewish filmmaker. Roger? HIV-positive, former addict musician... You get the idea. These peoples' passions, fears, attitudes, and motivations remain largely unexplored, reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures. At the end of the film, I didn't feel as though I really knew any of these people nor had much investment in their fates.
If a character succeeds at distinguishing themself from the pack, it's usually due to an actor being likable rather than having the opportunity to show much depth. Tom has almost nothing of a storyline, but Jesse L. Martin is charismatic so he is enjoyable to watch. I like Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson from other work, so I had more interest in their characters, though I struggled to remain interested in Dawson's storyline for which I fault the script and a miscast romantic foil rather than her. Idina Menzel is the only actor previously unknown to me who really caught my attention with her energetic and fairly nuanced performance as Maureen.
Thoms and Dawson are the only actors who did not appear in the original stage production, so many of the actors have been occupying these characters' skins for years. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they can make the transition to the big screen. While Adam Pascal is the only actor carried over from the play who seems completely out of his element, Anthony Rapp and Wilson Jermaine Heredia are only decent, and Taye Diggs is fine but unexceptional in his very small role. Pascal offers at best a lukewarm performance as Roger and fails to generate much screen presence. But as I said, I think Martin and Menzel are good, the former perhaps benefiting from his years on Law & Order. The chemistry amongst the ensemble is pretty good – the cast fares better when they are all together – but it fizzles between some of the pairings. Thoms and Menzel have great chemistry, making Joanne and Maureen one of very few fictional couples who manage to seem like they would have some fun in the sack without the inclusion of a sex scene. Martin and Heredia never really sell the romantic aspect of their relationship but do seem genuinely affectionate. Pascal and Dawson, however, couldn't generate heat with a flame thrower.
I cannot say much that is positive about Jonathan Larson's music and lyrics. Granted, most of the songs are catchy and fairly memorable, but I find the lyrics poorly written, often saccharine, mostly melodramatic, and in some cases laughable. They offer some modest character moments, but Joanne is the only one who actually gets some character development out of a song (and, indeed, in the entire film) when she walks down the stairs singing, "Take me for what I am," shedding her insecurities about needing and keeping Maureen. The music sounds straight out of the early nineties, which may not be inappropriate given that the story is set in 1990, but the music does really date the musical, which I found to be detrimental. Larson based RENT on Puccini's opera La Bohéme, which might explain the melodramatic tenor of many songs. But that operatic emotion never really gels with the grim realities of addiction and AIDS that color the film, resulting in an uneven tone and giving an artificial quality to the weightier scenes.
Part of me wants to love RENT, because it's the only musical that features HIV-positive characters, lesbians, gay men, even a drag queen. But even though those types of people might make up my community, it doesn't mean that I find these characters relatable or even recognizable. Visibility in the media does matter to marginalized groups, but I'm still not going to embrace every shallow, inadequate portrayal that comes along.