American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
'Rent" is a stage musical that wants to be a movie musical. Many stage musicals, from "Oklahoma!" to "West Side Story," feel right at home on the screen. "Rent" on film is missing a crucial element of its life-support system: a live audience. The stage production surrounded the audience with the characters and the production. It lacked the song "We Are Family," but that was the subtext. On film, "Rent" is the sound of one hand clapping.
It is not a bad film. It may be about as good a film as the material can inspire. The performances have a presence and poignancy that can feel surprisingly real, given the contrivances of the story. The film uses many of the same actors who starred in the original 1996 New York production, and the newcomers, Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, earn their roles. But if you stand back from the importance of "Rent" as a cultural artifact and a statement about AIDS, does it stand on its own as a musical?
I don't think so. The song lyrics by Jonathan Larson have an ungainly quality, perhaps deliberate; the words often seem at right angles to the music. I do not demand that lyrics scan, rhyme and make sense, but I do think they should flow with, or even against, the music. Here, the words and the music sometimes play as if two radios have been left on at the same time ("My T-cells are low" doesn't strike me as an especially singable line). The music serves the choreography, the words serve the story, but they don't serve one another.
The film left me in a curious state: I felt more respect than affection. From some of the more compelling characters, including Mimi (Dawson) and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), there are three-dimensional portraits that are convincing on any level. But the roommates in that artist's loft seem just as much of a casting call as they do in Puccini's "La Boheme," the opera that inspired "Rent." They're so busy being bohemian and defying authority that they never find time to be themselves.