I think that the film suffered largely because the director was unwilling to allow the theatre material to adapt to the film medium, relying mainly on the fact that the narrative had already existed, and merely matching particular images to suit the flow of the story. But somehow, you can't quite get the feel of suspending your disbelief as you watch the characters break into song in the middle of the hustle and bustle of New York City. I think the very reason why Rent worked onstage is because of its sparse set design and the fact that the story (and much of the dialogue) is reliant on the music. In the film medium, music serves to amplify the story, but not to overpower it.
Christopher Columbus might not have been the best director to helm this project as well. He was too safe, too wholesome, sticking too closely to the rules for a production that reveled in breaking the rules, in eschewing the conventional and going for the gut. There were moments, yes, when the film shone - in "La Vie Boheme" and in the reprise of "I'll Cover You"; in the montage sequence that separated Act I from Act II - but generally, the lackluster quality of the direction could have been better suited for a wholesome family film rather than a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about death and AIDS and homelessness and love.
Furthermore, it also seemed that the director was quite unsure about what to do with the ensemble. While it worked while they were in pairs, or in small groups, put them all together (such as in that scene in the cemetery, or in the loft when Roger sings to Mimi his song) and it seems that more often than not, there's a feeling of loitering, like people aren't quite sure what to do with their hands. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it that in film (and theatre as well), everybody onstage - or in this case, in the frame - should be doing something that contributes to the story? Loitering main characters is like the film equivalent of dead air between two people who really like each other at first but, in the middle of their first date, are realizing that maybe they don't have that much in common.
Character-wise, the newcomers (Rosario Dawson filling in for Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, and Tracie Thoms taking center stage as lesbian lawyer Joanne) are a joy to watch onscreen. Idina and Tracie's volatile chemistry is palpable, though I wonder how Taye Diggs is taking it that his wife is going around flirting with other women. ^_^ And Rosario positively sparkles as Mimi, and takes to the role as a fish would take to water. God, I'd love to see her perform onstage. And while she doesn't have that raspy
Sad to say, though, that the weakest link in the ensemble seemed to be Roger. Adam Pascal should perhaps stick to performing onstage, and not acting. Because honestly, there were moments (particularly in the Santa Fe sequences) when he looked like a Bon Jovi-wannabe).
Still, there's something to be said when there are only the two of you singing along to "La Vie Boheme" at the top of your lungs and enjoying yourselves and then realizing that there are precious few who will appreciate the film for what it is. At best, I hope it will spark some interest in the musical, and other musicals as well, and maybe inspire another person or help another person who needs some form of strength and will find it in Rent.