Glad I Didn't Rent Rent

Bloggified by Jake on Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rent was on FX tonight, so I finally got to see the movie version. I'd been curious since two or three years ago, I worked wardrobe on the tour of Rent when it came to Phoenix. It had been on sale for $6 at Target, but I held off, certain that would be six bucks I'd regret wasting.

As with most musicals, I automatically assumed it was crap. For the most part, I was right, but there were some songs that were catchy enough I was willing to illegally downloaded them to my iPod. There was even one powerful scene (in the stage version--it didn't translate well to film) that surprised me. A hot stripper tries to seduce her musician neighbor, but he pushes her away by being a jerk--not because he doesn't like her, but because he does. He's HIV-positive and realizes that a relationship with him would be a death sentence for her, so he's accepted that he'll be alone forever.

Unfortunately, this scene is defused later when he finds out she's HIV-positive too and they can be together. It might have had some impact if there wasn't a similar scene earlier where two guys happily relate to each other in song that they are both HIV-positive and therefore can go have sex.

I understand, Rent, you're challenging our perception of the loose, lawless world of artists, but that's the same challenge twice! Come up with something else.

Actually, the main problem with Rent is that it keeps trying to challenge our perceptions of a world we're not a part of, but it's always with terrible, terrible garbage. But since we're being challenged by the crap, the cast tries to convince us it isn't crap by being overly enthusiastic. There's a scene at a spoken-word protest show (though how it's a protest I don't really understand) where a woman rides in on a motorcycle to cheers that make you wonder if the characters are supposed to have never seen a motorized vehicle before and suspect they are witnessing history. She goes on stage and tells a story about a cow that jumps over the moon and starts mooing and the crowd moos along as if this is powerful, insightful stuff. Meanwhile, there are stuffy guys in suits who don't get it, which sends the message to the audience, "Do you want to be cool or one of these jerks? If you don't get it, you sure ain't cool..."

The following scene, in fact, has the artists confront the suits by explaining what they stand for... which is pretty much anything Middle America might find objectionable.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for offending the morality of Middle America, but there should be something to it. Rent reminds me of an old Onion article about Marilyn Manson going door to door to shock people.
"Look at me, suburban dung," Manson told Wesley. "Does this shock you?"

When Wesley replied no, he said Manson became "petulant." Recalled Wesley: "He started stamping his feet and shaking his fists, saying, 'What do you mean no? Aren't your uptight, puritanical sensibilities offended? Don't you want to censor me so you don't have to confront the ugly truth I represent?' So I say, 'Well, not particularly.' Then, after a long pause, he says, 'Well, screw you, jerk!' and walks off sulking."
If you want to make a case for why gays should be allowed to marry or why abstinence-only sex education is doomed to failure, speak up and share! But if you think shouting "sodomy" in a crowded theater makes you edgy and cooler than everyone who didn't, grow up.

The character who best epitomizes Rent's flaws is Angel. Angel is a drag queen who is totally awesome and an inspiration to everyone and makes life worth living. At least that's what the cast makes sure to tell us every five minutes. Call it the Poochy-effect. When Angel isn't on screen, everyone talks about what Angel might be doing at that moment--which makes for a lot of dull conversations after Angel dies in the second act.

Never mind that they just met Angel a few days earlier, he's been their reason for living, for dying, for laughing, and for crying. And consider how they meet Angel. When Mark and Roger's friend Tom comes by with some money, he introduces them to Angel who... well, does this...
Note the over-enthusiasm? If some dude in an ugly wig and a Mrs. Claus jacket walks into your home and does a lousy song and dance number without so much as saying, "Hey, how's it going? Nice to meet you," you don't laugh and clap and cheer. You ask him to get the hell out and seriously question your friend who invited him.

At the end of the movie, Angel literally becomes an angel. When the stripper from above dies of a heroin overdose, she suddenly snaps back to life revealing that she'd been headed toward a warm light, but Angel told her to go back.

Add to all this that Rent's attempts to make the artistic, Bohemian lifestyle seem cool all fall flat. Roger is supposed to be a struggling musician who wants to write one song that will be memorable enough to live on after he dies of AIDS, but really is just a no-talent hack who takes an entire year to write a love song with all the romanticism of a junior high student pining for the girl in second period math who's started to develop boobs. Mark is a film maker who is always shooting for his documentary and turns down a good paying job for a news magazine show to complete it. In the movie (I'm not sure about on stage), they actually show his film, and if it's a documentary, so is every home movie your grandfather shot on 8mm film. It's pretty much just his friends waving at the camera, but from the musical accompaniment I get the impression it's supposed to be powerful, visionary stuff.
In short, the artists all suck and are more in love with the artistic lifestyle than their art and if that were the message, I might be more inclined to enjoy the movie. For a prime example of that story--and it's a good one--go listen to David Sedaris discuss his time as a performance artist (it's about 15 minutes into the episode). Instead, Rent winds up feeling more like a college psychological experiment where you are shown a pile of cow dung and are told it's shrimp scampi. Then everyone else in the room eats it and raves about how delicious the shrimp scampi is just to see if you'll cave to public pressure, eat manure, and compliment the chef.

2 sarcastic replies:

Frank said...

Agree, unfortunately I saw it live (and it wasn't cheap mind you). Such a waste of money, if only I had your blog post to warn me.

Jake said...

I tend to think the live show might be a bit better, but as you point out, the difference in quality between a free showing on FX and a $120 ticket to sit in the theater doesn't quite balance.

That said, at least in the theater you can kind of see the people on stage living that life. The movie decided to use the original cast, so you have a bunch of 40-somethings getting phone calls from their parents checking in on them and falling in love at the drop of a hat. Rosario Dawson was cast as Mimi supposedly because Daphne Rubin-Vega was pregnant during filming, but you can also assume producers thought a 37-year-old would have trouble convincing movie goers she half her age.

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