At one point in Rent, the gang of bohemians walks up to a sleeping homeless woman and self-righteously forces a gang of cops to back away from her. When they expect gratitude, they are greeted instead by disdain. "This town's full of artists," she grumbles. "Hey, artists! Got a dollar? ...Didn't think so."
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Though this is supposed to garner sympathy for the movie's penniless heroes, it actually makes a very good point against them. They spend most of the movie wandering around aimlessly, talking morosely about how no one appreciates their work, but the truth is that they don't really produce any. They are horrified at a former friend who actually gets a job and starts trying to service society, but they themselves could drop out of society entirely and society would not suffer. One of them has a lengthy song, "One Song Glory," about how he's only written one great song and now he doesn't know what to do with his life. Well, boo hoo! In the meantime, stop crying and get a job!
Rent is an insidiously self-righteous musical, because if anyone points out that the heroes are basically lazy, useless people, the film itself produces an easy rebuttal: they're artists! They're living la vie boheme! Just because they aren't corporate suits doesn't mean they don't service society, right?
The supposed artists are as follows: Mark (Anthony Rapp), who follows everyone around with his hyper-'80s video camera and produces nothing but hours of home videos; Roger (Adam Pascal), who thinks of himself as a musician, even though he's written one good song and has no planned follow-up; Maureen (Idina Menzel), whose idea of an organized and thoughtful protest is getting up on a stage and doing some god-awful performance art piece about cows; Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a heroin-using stripper who falls inexplicably in love with Roger; Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), the Jesus figure in the movie, who is a martyr for his AIDS, his homosexuality, his bohemianism, everything. We are supposed to root for Angel in his fight against the disease, but he is so annoying that I can't really be bothered.
The story kicks off when friend Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) is mugged and left in an alley, and then found by Angel. It quickly turns into "AIDS: The Musical" when Angel makes what is undoubtedly the most annoying outcast status-related remark ever made:
"I have a life support meeting to go to...it's for people with AIDS. People like me."
This, then, is at the movie's crux: the struggle against AIDS. Half the characters in the movie have AIDS, and they spend all their time talking about it, not directly but in little side conversations that attempt to bring normality to the disease. "Don't forget to take your AZT" is an unlikely thing to hear; if the situation were different, and the character was a cancer patient, what are the odds of hearing "don't forget to get chemotherapy"?
The fears revolving around AIDS are addressed, but generally in lyrics that sound straight out of a high school girl's diary. "Will I lose my dignity?" sings someone at the life support meeting (while Mark stands behind them filming in what is one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the film). "Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?"
It's all well and good to address the concerns of AIDS--in fact, it would be most timely for someone to do so now, with the disease rampant and people uncertain of how to handle it. My problem is not with the message. It's just...the clumsiness of all the lyrics, the pure childishness resounding in them. It all sounds so one-dimensional and flat.
The film revolves loosely around a series of short plots. First, Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend of the group, asks Mark and Roger to call off Maureen's protest and in return they can continue to live rent-free in their squalid apartment. They become inexplicably angry, and it becomes clear that in this movie, Benny is the villain with no principles.
Then, Mimi and Roger meet awkwardly, in one of the finer musical moments ("Light My Candle"). They establish with each other a strange relationship, though Roger is uncertain how to tell her he has AIDS and Mimi is struggling with heroin addiction. The ending of their story probably would come as no surprise, but I'll let it be one anyway.
Mark, who used to date Maureen, is extremely uneasy with her new girlfriend Joanne (Tracie Thoms), and the two of them spend most of the movie trying to deal with Maureen's wild spirit and infidelity. Personally, though, I would have had more trouble dating a woman who favored performance art.
Finally, Collins and Angel, after their initial meeting, become lovers and Angel eventually begins to deteriorate from AIDS. He dies (what? You knew it was coming) and the circle is broken, as the second half of the movie revolves around all the group's members "finding themselves."
It all requires a serious suspension of reality. I fail to see why I should applaud a group of supposed artists for living as squatters in vile parts of town, simply because they refuse to just grow up and learn to take care of themselves. I don't understand why Benny's big line in the allusion-filled song "La Vie Boheme" is scoffed at so vigorously, because he has a point. "This is Calcutta," he sings. "Bohemia is dead."
He's fighting a battle for improvement in a terrible part of town, and they are fighting to keep it miserable and filthy just so they can keep their supposed principles. And Benny is the evil one?
I recognize that to love this movie requires the same idealism shared by its central characters. It requires that same fire in the belly which causes Maureen to have her protest, and her friends to cheer her on. I just don't see why a group of failed artists are supposed to carry a story about principles.
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