Squatters Rights

First off, full disclosure. I despise musicals in every form and if it weren’t for their occasional return to popular cinema, would never watch one. It’s not the sudden segues into song or the way whole streets of passers-by burst into well-choreographed jazz-hands that gets me. It’s the overwhelming fakeness and insincerity of the genre that I cannot abide; all the Up With People! plastic smiles, the cheesy show tunes and the cardboard backdrops. That ingrained antipathy is not entirely this movies fault, but I can't remember being so unhappy when watching a film (and so desperate to leave) so Chris Columbus’ will-sapping, fairy-story song and dance effort has to shoulder some of the blame.

Directed as if it were on stage, but without the live audience that adds frisson to all that prancing about, Columbus brings the Broadway hit about dodging landlords to the big screen, without ever offering any reason for his having done so. Rent aspires to be an up-tempo movie about AIDS, heroin addiction, sex-workers, drugs, transvestism and bisexuality, bravely tackling such difficult themes by surgically removing any lingering trace of authenticity, danger or truth in order to keep everybody smiling through all the tears.

Inspired, it says here, by Puccini's La Boheme, the film follows a year in the life of the dues-dodging roommates Roger and Mark, a filmmaker (glasses, 16mm camera) and a struggling musician (big Bon Jovi hair, shouts everything) who along with their close-knit group of squatter friends, including Rosario Dawson as Mimi the hooker with the heart of gold, struggle to cope with the difficult life outlined above by fighting authority and remaining true to their bohemian selves. Roger and Mark did have a third roommate, Benjamin (Taye Diggs), but he married a millionaire’s daughter and has now become a property developer and their landlord.

Sound contrived? You bet it does. The soap-opera Rent is clad in rags it tore up itself. In keeping with the early-90s AIDS theme, there’s a lyric about a low T-cell count. I defy you to listen to it without your face scrunching into a wince of agony, your fingernails gripping the cinema seat in a spasm of pure torture. Do you think people dying of AIDS look this pretty, sing and dance this sweetly, hope for the future this blindly? Think on.

Manfully struggling to put my own critical prejudices to one side, I still ended up hating every single frame of this misbegotten film. The songs are awful, the acting performances likewise. The dialogue is laughable, mere shreds of chat stitching the songs together. The staging looks exactly that, staged, flat and bare and empty. When the freezing roommates make a fire with their abandoned screenplays and art brut, for a moment I dreamt that the reels of celluloid had followed them into the flames. I awoke again and the film was still playing and the rent was still due and my stomach was a hot knot of nausea, as if I had been force-fed candyfloss spun from broken bottles.

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