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‘Rent’ needs a fresh lease

Its story of characters dealing with AIDS seems dated 10 years later

Last year’s “South Park” spin-off, “Team America,” included a pretentious Broadway musical called “Lease,” in which a chorus of young New Yorkers belted out the show’s hit tune, “Everyone Has AIDS.”

It was, of course, a wicked parody of the long-running “Rent,” in which several characters are HIV-positive — and implausibly sing about it (indeed, singing loudly seems to revive one of them on her deathbed). Like many a dead-on parody, “Lease” makes the original almost impossible to take seriously. Especially if you had trouble taking it seriously in the first place.

A musical lives or dies on the strength of its songs, and the late Jonathan Larson’s rock tunes for “Rent” simply don’t measure up. The music is more bombastic than melodic; the lyrics are banal and gratingly predictable — an affliction they share with much of the dialogue. Despite its Pulitzer and its Tonys, and despite one catchy number (“Seasons of Love”), it fails to soar.

Now that it’s finally been committed to celluloid, almost a decade after it first appeared on stage, “Rent” has become one of those curiously dated movie adaptations that exposes the limitations of theatrical material that now seems hopelessly overpraised. It’s also one of those movie musicals that reveals that some directors, however talented they may be in other genres, were simply not born to make musicals.

Directed by Chris Columbus, who made the first two Harry Potter movies, it’s right up there with Richard Attenborough’s uninvolving version of “A Chorus Line” and Arthur Hiller’s even deadlier “Man of La Mancha.” What the movie needs is the fresh start that director Rob Marshall gave to “Chicago” and his television version of “Annie,” both of which had a sass that’s missing here.

Based on “La Boheme,” Larson’s show has been rewritten by screenwriter Stephen Chbosky, who has a hard time focusing on the characters and finding acceptable ways for them to put their songs across on the streets of the East Village. Most of the original cast members recreate their sketchy roles, but only a few stand out: Anthony Rapp as filmmaker Mark, Idina Menzel as manipulative Maureen, Tracie Thoms as the hopeful lesbian Joanne.

Adam Pascal’s Roger, who loves the sickly Mimi (Rosario Dawson), gives perhaps the most annoying performance, though the movie does him no favors by turning his sudden trip to Santa Fe into a narrative non-sequitur. Wilson Jermaine Heredia’s Angel is a one-note martyr, Taye Diggs’ Benny doesn’t add up, while Jesse L. Martin’s Thomas is stuck with the most maudlin moments.

Chbosky and Columbus never do find an effective way of working “Seasons of Love” into the storyline (it now opens the show in the stagiest manner, and it’s reprised a couple of times), though they have some success with “Tango: Maureen,” in which Maureen’s ex-boyfriend (Mark) and new girlfriend (Joanne) dissect her devious treatment of her lovers.

It’s one of the few lighthearted or witty moments, though it’s quickly drowned out by unlikely and melodramatic numbers that mostly heighten the show’s overwhelming sense of artificiality. If you liked “Rent” on stage, perhaps you’ll be able to stomach it on film. But even devoted fans may be baffled by this adaptation.