Nov 30, 2005 at 12:00 am

The big Hollywood movie-musical revival that began a few years ago may not be dead just yet, but it’s in critical condition. If the brazenly gaudy Moulin Rouge paved the way for the blockbuster Oscar-winner Chicago, then last year’s moribund flop Phantom of the Opera almost undid the progress made by those films. Now, we’ve got the long-overdue screen version of Rent, and though it’s not quite the debacle the previews suggested, it’s still a cheesy, clumsy throwback to the genre’s dog days: stale, earnest issue musicals of the ’80s. If the upcoming big-screen version of The Producers ends up sucking too, you might as well nail the coffin shut.

True to the play but utterly unimaginative, Rent may pacify the scores of high-school drama troupes who saved up their allowance to see the traveling production of the live show, but it’s unlikely to win over any new converts. Part of this has to do with Jonathan Larson’s source material. Set at the dawn of the ’90s, the play made sense in the Clinton administration, when AIDS, grunge and a genuinely dilapidated Lower East Side fueled the fantasy that all twentysomethings in New York City were soft-spoken multicultural martyrs suffering for their art. Rent may take its inspiration from Puccini’s La Boheme, but it’s much more like the hippie-era Hair, a counterculture rallying cry that seems more dated with each passing year. The issues still apply, but the particulars have changed: HIV is incurable but treatable, for a price; the Lower East Side is now clogged with overpriced hipster bars and nouvelle cuisine; and all the struggling artists packed up and moved to Brooklyn years ago.

It would take a daring, visionary artist to make this stuff relevant in the era of Bush II, so, of course, the producers have chosen to give directing duties to the man who brought you Home Alone and The Goonies. If Chris Columbus’ career has proven anything, it’s that the man is about as edgy as a butter knife. The way he envisions it, Rent is a dusty retro fantasyland, with feathered hair straight out of an old Bon Jovi video and all the soaring crescendos and power riffs you hear in Christian rock; it’s as if grunge never happened, let alone Guns N’ Roses, hip hop or techno. The seven junkies, transvestites and squatters who populate the cast wander aimlessly around cavernous lofts and looming cityscapes that look more like a Los Angeles back lot than anything on the East Coast, despite the occasional on-location backdrop.

Columbus has made one good choice: employing most of the stage production’s original cast. Some, like Taye Diggs (playing the heartless yuppie Benny) and Anthony Rapp (as the struggling filmmaker Mark) are familiar faces, but a few of the lesser-known performers make confident transitions to the big screen. New addition Tracie Thoms as the no-nonsense lesbian Joanne has a brusque physicality and a set of unbelievable pipes that shine through Columbus’ indifferent, close-up shooting style. Wilson Jermaine Heredia makes a strong impression as the movie’s emotional centerpiece, the cross-dressing Angel, despite getting stuck with the worst drag wardrobe since Mrs. Doubtfire (another Columbus-directed nightmare). At times, Larson’s songs are good enough to overcome the canned, lip-synched quality of the sound track and the static choreography. Mostly, however, the movie has the weird, airless quality of its opening sequence, where the cast stands on a bare stage, singing a tune to an empty theater.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].