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Bohemian atrophy

The edgy, indigent 'Rent' kids get the Hollywood treatment

It's taken them nine years to get there, but the award-winning collection of junkies, drag queens, and activist urchins from the East Village have finally made it to Hollywood. And in the movie version of ''Rent," they are such a cute and cuddly bunch it's easy to leave the theater thinking you've just seen ''Muppets Take Manhattan," instead.

Of course, Miss Piggy, Scooter, and the gang were treated to livelier direction and better production values. In bringing Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning rock-popera to the screen, Chris Columbus seems to have kept in awkward spaces after the musical numbers for audience applause. This is wishful thinking, given the dispiriting lack of creativity he's brought to the proceedings.

Most of the original cast members have made it back for the movie, which was filmed on location in New York. Rosario Dawson fills in for the feral Daphne Rubin-Vega and Tracie Thoms for soulful Fredi Walker. Everybody belts his and her little heart out. But they're all so poorly lit in some numbers we can barely see them. Yes, ''Rent" is about penniless artists who can't afford to eat or pay their electric bills. But must their straits extend to the threadbare filmmaking, too?

Larson, who died before the show opened on Broadway in 1996, fashioned ''Rent" as a contemporary version of Puccini's ''La Bohème." Like the show, the movie's plot is told in strands that are occasionally woven into production numbers. While the play didn't specify a year, the movie sets the material in the late 1980s. And a lot of the dialogue originally sung is now spoken on-screen -- sometimes, unfortunately, in rhyme.

Holding the story lines together are Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal), roommates in an illegal industrial loft. One's a filmmaker, the other an ex-junkie rock songwriter. Their professor friend, Collins (Jesse L. Martin), gets mugged and is rescued by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a benevolent drag queen. They both happen to be HIV-positive and fall in love.

Mimi (Dawson) is the stripper junkie who lives downstairs from Roger. They fall in love, too. Also in love are Mark's ex, Maureen (Idina Menzel), and Joanne (Thoms). The whole crew is united against Bennie (Taye Diggs). He used to be a hipster but now is a suit who wants to raze a tent city to build a production studio.

People bicker, they dance, they die.

The movie gets off to an inauspiciously sluggish start when the eight main cast members belt the show's signature tune, ''Seasons of Love," on a set-less stage in front of an empty house. They're giving it their all, grooving and wailing to no one in particular: Hey, we're over here! And it's 1989 -- Simon Cowell hasn't been invented yet.

Some will marvel at the multiracial casting, and they wouldn't be wrong. There is something powerful and touching about a black male academic loving a cross-dressing Latino activist. But Columbus has let down die-hards before: The first two ''Harry Potter" movies were his. There, he worked with competency if not imagination, and the material was in his kid-friendly strike zone. ''Rent" is a disappointment in part because he doesn't seem adult enough to take its adult themes seriously.

Sometimes, however, Columbus and the movie get it right. Rapp and Thoms have a wonderful, funny exchange called ''Tango: Maureen," in which they commiserate about Menzel's drama queen. It's a sparkling scene, all the more remarkable because, at last, we can see the singers feeling the song. Rapp is the Kermit of this operation and the best thing in the movie, selling all the songs with hard-working boyishness.

Columbus and his crew even open up the number to show the two tangoing with Menzel and a room full of extras.

In another superb production number, ''La Vie Bohème," all the main characters and whoever else is around gather in the Life Cafe (bigger and brighter than the real thing). Though the camera barely knows where to look, the actors are having a great time, sliding on counters and stage-kissing, while ticking off toasts to stuff they love (''Huevos Rancheros and Maya Angelou!").

The sequence is exhilarating. It's also satisfyingly long, and Larson's exclamatory songwriting here gets at a primal teenage urge to show off and be shocking. A decade after it opened, too much of ''Rent" feels quaint. But this number still carries the big charge of a generational anthem.

The sequence is the movie's centerpiece, and what follows in the second half is especially dull and silly. A lot of the cues in ''Rent" seem to come from the music videos of the 1980s and '90s. Not the good ones, either, but trite, shoddy-looking, forgettable flotsam from the likes of Jody Watley and Journey. Near the finale, poor Adam Pascal, already burdened with Jon Bon Jovi's haircut, has to reenact the singer's mountaintop wailing from the ''Blaze of Glory" video.

Some of the staging is just dumb. ''Santa Fe" is a good song that's inexplicably set on an uncrowded subway train. Martin, with his big body and creamy voice, is forced to swing around the poles, which he does like a giant gymnast. He has pizzazz, but not a lot of floor space. It's a miracle he doesn't hit his head.

While filming on location lends ''Rent" authenticity, there's nothing here as electrifyingly surreal as that traffic-stopping scene in Alan Parker's ''Fame," in which arts students danced on taxis. When Martin and Heredia sing ''I'll Cover You," a lovey-dovey up-tempo duet, we can see the breath escaping their mouths. But they don't shout their love from the middle of Canal Street or wherever they are. They do it safely on the sidewalk, which is the movie's problem. It's pedestrian.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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