This is so ridiculously long that I've broken it out as a separate post. The short version is that the movie doesn't suck, but the flaws in the musical are mostly still there in the film, and suspension of disbelief is harder on film than on stage.
More tedious details than anyone could really want, especially considering that the film's been out for a while.
I first experienced Rent as a recording, back when the original Broadway cast recording was released. I loved it from the start, at least the first half, and still have some pretty vivid memories of hearing it for the first time while taking a fairly long walk along and across the Charles River to get a gift certificate for my parents. I also saw it in Boston on tour, not very long after hearing it; I had nosebleed seats, and mainly remember that one of the white male characters (probably Mark) had a really bad dye job so that you could tell him apart from the other white male character. All I recall about the staging was that "Contact" was done under a big red enveloping piece of fabric.
A few months ago, I had my laptop at my parents' and ripped their Rent CDs. I hadn't listened to the cast recording for years, and was amazed that (1) I still remembered every note and (2) every note stuck in my head for weeks, no matter what else I listened to in the meantime. I was not surprised to find that I'd lost sympathy for a lot of the characters in the years since, having become all employed and yuppie and stuff.
So my principal experience of Rent is the music, and for all that I dislike large portions of the second act, I still love and know by heart large chunks of the music. I had a feeling, given all this, that I wasn't going to like the movie—but I had to see what was done with it all the same, so I went by myself (Chad would hate it) in-between Christmas shopping a couple of weeks ago.
It's hard for me to know what the movie would be like to people who don't know the musical. Some changes seemed like they might alienate those unfamiliar; others alienated me but might have passed unnoticed.
For instance, the credits sequence is an absolutely baffling choice: the eight main cast members, standing a rigid distance apart from each other on a stage before an empty theater, singing "Seasons of Love." My reaction was along the lines of, "hey, it's Collins! And there's the new Joanne, hmmm—and why does Angel look so straight?" But it was also an incredibly static staging, before any new viewers know or care about these people—I thought it was just weird.
Something that drove me nuts, but may have passed unnoticed by new watchers: a great deal of dialogue that's sung in the musical, is spoken in the movie but is otherwise identical. It drove me batty—"you're rhyming, doesn't anyone notice this?"—but I can't tell how intrusive it would be for people who weren't hearing the musical in their heads. Personally, I think the movie should've kept it all sung—sing as much as possible, because it reduces the number of jarring speech-to-song transitions.
That's another problem, one just intrinsic to the format unless you take the Chicago approach—these days, people randomly breaking into song is kind of weird. The concrete nature of the film doesn't do any favors for the audience's willing suspension of disbelief; for instance, "Today 4 U," Angel's big introduction piece and a solo song-and-dance act, is easier to accept when you don't have the dingy reality of the crummy apartment inescapably visible in the background. "La Vie Boheme"'s opening is staged in a fun way, but it also highlights how improbable it is that Benny and his investors decide to do business in a place like the Life Cafe—if it weren't for the requirements of plot, they're heading uptown for dinner a quiet, non-crunchy restaurant.
(Most of Benny's really unsympathetic moments are cut; I found him confusing in the musical, but a cypher in the movie.)
Since it's a movie, we get to move around more in space; sometimes this works well, and sometimes it feels superfluous. An example of the latter is "One Song Glory," which is preceded and followed by Roger in his apartment; but for "One Song Glory," he heads to the roof . . . for no in-story reason except to have him move around. On the other hand, "Out Tonight" (the cat-yowling song) is recast as one of Mimi's performance numbers at the Cat Scratch Club; she keeps singing as she leaves work, and then finishes the song in Roger's apartment. The musical's staging has Roger sitting through the entire four-minute song before kicking her out, which makes absolutely no emotional sense.
A few reviews have mentioned that "I'll Cover You," the Collins/Angel duet, is cliched in its couple-running-down-the-street staging. This is true, but they're so joyous that I'll forgive it. I also liked the staging of "Santa Fe," which is in a subway car; it's a song about New York, and some of the other New Yorkers bop along, smile, dance with Collins, or give them weird looks and move away. It's amusing and it makes sense that other New Yorkers would react to the characters.
Unfortunately the movie doesn't take these reactions to their logical conclusion in the first in-character song, "Rent." It's staged with all the other residents of the block also singing, setting papers on fire and dropping them down from windows, and even circling Benny as he pulls up in his Range Rover: "We're not gonna pay rent!" It's a fabulous, energetic, ominous scene . . . and then it all dissipates when the song ends. The people getting in Benny's face fade away, people go inside from their balconies, and the tension just vanishes, *pouf*, only to allow the plot to proceed on its pre-determined lines. It highlighted the artificiality of the format, and I found it very jarring.
(Speaking of artificiality, did we really have to get a Bon Jovi moment with Roger in Santa Fe? Come on, people. Oh, and "Your Eyes" is still a terrible song—anyone who comes back from the dead for that needs their taste in music re-examined.)
(This is part of a more general problem I had with the musical: Roger and Mimi just aren't that interesting. The musical clearly wants us to take Mimi's side in "Another Day," but from the first my reaction has been exactly the same as Roger's: "If you're so wise then tell me, why do you need smack?" A recovering heroin addict is perfectly sensible in not wanting to get involved with someone who's still on the stuff! This is not running away from emotion but survival. And other than "Light My Candle," we don't get to see why either of them are interesting (though that is a great song). Similarly, at least the way the movie stages it, Joanne and Maureen's problems aren't from Joanne's irrational jealousy at people looking at Maureen, but from Maureen's active and deliberate flirting whenever she feels left out or trapped. "Take Me or Leave Me" suggests, at worst, that they're both right, but the way the movie shows it—I'd have dumped her too.)
In terms of changes, the first act was restructured to take place over several days; I have no opinion on this. The major cuts were "Christmas Bells," "Happy New Year," "Contact," and the second half of "Goodbye Love." These were fine with me: I like the first two songs, but taking them out does streamline things; I don't like "Contact," and it makes more sense to transition directly from "Without You" to Angel's funeral; and "Goodbye Love" gives me hives, probably because of what the original Mimi's voice does in it. There were no original songs.
I did like the new Mimi better; her voice was similiar but less irritating at the extremes. I was disappointed in the new Joanne; she didn't have as much presence as the original actress, and the script dropped her self-confidence and sense of humor. (She was one of my favorite characters in the original, which is why I'm particularly sensitive to the small changes that were made.)
I'm not sorry I saw it, and there were some parts of it that I liked better, but I don't need to own the movie soundtrack or see this again. Now if only I could get "and it's beginning to snow" out of my head . . .