Disclaimer: If you like the musical Rent, you will likely like this film – but you will likely not like this review. Sorry.
Here's a truism you're welcome to contest: every contemporary Hollywood musical is a potential rescue action. Here we have an entire genre of filmmaking that's been left for dead: it still flickers to life every now and then, with a Moulin Rouge here, a Dancer in the Dark there, but if it's ever going to matter again, it needs one major sweep of resurrection and reinvention. For awhile, it looked like Chicago was going to be it, but I think in the end, Rob Marshall's multi-Oscar winner was more of a question than an answer: it was, in fact, a challenge. "No excuses," its very existence seemed to say. "If we're gonna do musicals, we're gonna do them goddamn right."
So what does any of this have to do with Rent, Chris Columbus' big-screen adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson's very-mid-90s musical theater phenomenon? Well, my dear, a lot. Because, as far as I'm concerned, when it comes musicals, Chicago presented a challenge that the mainstream filmmaking community has failed to accept. How can you make a musical in 2005 and not have a sense of the history of the genre, and a hope for its future? Rent is a total waste of resources, not because it's so completely foul (although it's certainly not good), but because it falls so far short of mattering in the grand scheme of things. By erring, at every turn, on the side of fan-wary caution, Columbus has made a film that will probably go over splendidly with devoted "Rentheads". The problem will lie in not just pleasing, but in fooling, everyone else. Rent brings absolutely nothing new to the musical cinema table, and as far as I, a devout believer in this near-dead genre, am concerned, that's just unacceptable. The stakes are too high for empty-headed stage-to-screen transpositions in the name of brand extension. As far as I'm concerned, any contemporary musical film that is anything less than spectacular is a waste of energy, money, space, and, above all, time.