A few years back I was forced to watch The Passion Of The Christ to prepare for the final audition of my poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie review panel show Movie Club With John Ridley. I'd pointedly avoided seeing The Passion of the Christ during its theatrical run. It wasn't anything personal: I just dislike Mel Gibson personally.
Since I missed out on seeing the film on the big screen I was reduced to watching it on a twelve-inch screen in my hotel room after catching a six A.M flight from Chicago's Midway airport to LAX on ATA. Oh, the glamour of television! Somehow, I imagine that when Mel Gibson contemplated the ideal viewer for his ferociously personal, self-financed labor of love he probably didn't envision a pinko Jew watching the movie against his will on a tiny television screen in a state of bone-deep exhaustion.
But even if I'd seen The Passion Of Christ on an IMAX screen after a dozen Cappuccinos I doubt I'd have liked it. Granted, I didn't go in expecting a revelatory experience but I expected to respond to it on some level at least, to be moved or shocked or horrified or experience shivering convulsions of empathy towards the King of Kings as he endures the Ass Whipping of Ass Whippings.
I was, after all, the kind of crazily neurotic Jewish kid who watched Christian televangelists on late night television and fully bought into their fiery tirades about the unimaginable horrors awaiting those who wouldn't accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Yet watching The Passion Of Christ, admittedly under less than ideal circumstances, all I felt was slack-jawed disbelief. This was the movie everyone got so worked up about, this cheesy, ham-fisted grind-house take on the crucifixion? This was the film that became a landmark in our culture's never-ending Culture War, this blood-splattered, violence-fetsishizing cornball Christian kitsch with its uber-Goth Satan straight out an ad for Calvin Klein's Obsession? The Passion Of The Christ was depressing but for all the wrong reasons.
I experienced a profound sense of déjà vu watching Home Alone director Chris Columbus' disastrous adaptation of Rent the first time around. I was once again gob-smacked that such a buzzed-about cultural phenomenon could be so transparently awful. This was the play that won the Pulitzer Prize, this fucking Up With People take on the New York low life? This was the show that inspired such a fervent cult? This was the show that was supposed to drag Broadway kicking and screaming into the present?
It's hard to overestimate the role timing plays in transforming a theatrical smash into a DOA cinematic disaster. The show folk who brought Jonathan Larson's Tony-winning pop triumph to the big screen patiently waited for the play's cultural moment to pass, then waited five more years, then a few more years after that, then finally pushed the project into development once it was little more than a quaint little nostalgia piece about a bygone New York filmed in a style that's half Fame, half Flashdance and all MTV schlock.
Rent retained much of its original Broadway cast. While keeping the original cast is always a good idea in theory and often a good idea in practice actors who convincingly played mid-twentysomethings in 1996 can't help but look a little long in the tooth come 2005.
The fact that the cast looks less post-collegiate than middle-aged only adds to the almost surreal lack of verisimilitude plaguing Rent. They're fake twentysomethings playing fake bohemians in a wholly inauthentic take on la vie boheme. Rent mastermind Jonathan Larson delved deep into the experiences of himself and his boho buddies when writing the play but somewhere between the play and the big screen any lingering traces of authenticity were systematically removed along with anything resembling grit, realism or soul.
But this is a new year so I decided to go into Rent with a new attitude. No longer would I snicker and sneer, protected by a thick layer of cynicism. No, I would open my heart and mind to the magic, the music, the wonder of Rent and let it have my wicked way with me. I was going to let the toe-tappingest movie ever made about AIDS, heroin and poverty infect my soul with its stirring message of "No day but today".
It didn't work. Mere seconds after the film began my cynicism returned and stayed to the bitter, bitter end. "Five hundred Twenty Five Thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?/In daylights in sunsets/In midnights and cups of coffee/In inches, in miles/in laughter and strife/In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/How do measure a year in the life?/How about love?" the cast of Rent inquires in its opening song, "Seasons of Love". Well, dear reader, I measured the one hundred and thirty five minutes (which only feel like Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes) of Rent not in love but in snickers, derisive snorts and unintentional laughter. And also love.
The film and play follow a series of suspiciously middle-aged-looking scruffy bohemian youngsters as they try to change the world through their crappy, crappy art. There's Adam Pascal, a Jon Bon Jovi lookalike with big hair, AIDS (in the parlance of Team America World Police everyone here's got AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS) and a tormented past that keeps him from being able to accept sexed-up heroin-addicted, AIDS-stricken yet really perky and fun stripper Rosario Dawson's constant sexual advances. Anyone who cavalierly rejects Rosario Dawson's sexual advances doesn't deserve to live anyway.
Then there's Pascal's roommate, Anthony Rapp, an aspiring D.A Pennabaker making a revolutionary documentary where he films his friends and neighbors. Incidentally there's a name for casual, ramshackle portraits of friends and neighbors shot on the fly: they're called home fucking movies and the last I checked they're not considered great art.
These dynamic duo and their crazily non-threatening bohemian pals face a looming crisis in the form of handsome Taye Diggs, a former comrade in arms who totally sold out and plans to evict his former pals from their Louvre-sized loft so he can build a ""a state of the art digital virtual interactive studio". The battle lines are drawn.
Diggs offers the boys a Faustian bargain: he'll let them stay in their apartment if they can get a sassy performance artist played by Idina Menzel to cancel a protest where she wears tight pants, calls Diggs a lapdog and whines "It's like I'm being tied to the hood of a yellow rental truck being packed in with fertilizer and fuel oil pushed over a cliff by a suicidal Mickey Mouse" Obviously no wealthy real-estate dynasty can possibly hope to compete with the society-changing primal power of an underground performance artist's impish pop-culture allegory so the protest is busted by the pigs before Menzel can disseminate more of her dangerous, dangerous, powerful, powerful ideas.
Much singing and dancing ensues en route to the climactic death of a kindly, angelic character named Angel who even after his death hovers benevolently over his friends like some sort of, god, what's the word I'm looking for here? You know, they made a show where these creatures touched people, and a movie where they were in the outfield and still another where they were in America. I'm sure I'll think of it after I've turned this piece in.
Dawson climactically threatens to die, and consequently put the film out of its misery, until she's literally brought back to life through the power of Pascal's crappy song. Ah, but what about the music, you say? Doesn't that redeem the whole sorry endeavor? Uh, no. Below are some particularly choice lyrics from this Pulitzer and Tony-winning work of super-genius: "How do you write a song when the chords sound wrong though they once sounded right and rare/When the notes sound sour where is the power/You once had to ignite the air" "The music ignites the night with passionate fire" "feel the heat of the future's glow" "How do you leave the past behind when it keeps finding ways to get to your heart" "Truth like a blazing fire, an eternal flame" "I think I dropped my stash. It was pure. Is it on the floor?" "Live in my house/I'll be your shelter/Just pay me back with one thousand kisses." "I'd forgotten how to smile until your candle burned my skin" "You'll never share true love until you love yourself."
Larson's lyrics, treacly powerless ballads and MOR melodies are less Stephen Soundheim than The Apple outtake. It seems incredibly perverse to make a musical about Gen-Xers, the most cynical and sarcastic generation known to man, wholly devoid of cynicism and sarcasm. The Apple consequently feels like a Disneyland stage show about those crazy Gen-Xers with their bicuriosity and crazy drug addictions and shameless love of hoofing and crooning. Here there's no problem that can't be overcome with singing/dancing and/or moxie.
I always appreciate movies that end after seventy-five or eighty minutes. It's as if they're saying "Look, we know we aren't very good. But we won't take up too much of your time. In fact we'll let you go fifteen minutes early so you can get on with your busy life." But movies that linger past the two-hour mark are like teachers who keep you after school. The filmmakers are saying "I know this is taking forever but stick with us cause we have something really, really important to say." Uh, no. No, you don't.
Rent doesn't just feel like a fairy-tale version of New York bohemia created for blue-haired tourists and clueless out-of-towners; it feels like it was created by them as well.
Failure, Fiasco Or Secret Success: Fiasco