There’s certainly a time and place for “Rent,” but on the evidence of this film, it’s not in 2005 or on the screen. The musical updating of “La Boheme” to the streets of 1989-90 New York City was a smash when it opened off-Broadway in 1996 and then moved to the Great White Way itself, where it’s played continuously for nearly a decade and taken in more than two hundred million dollars in ticket sales. It went on to win just about every theatre award in existence (as well as a Pulitzer Prize); and the poignancy of its story about urban artists–straight, gay and bi– struggling against both penury and the twin plagues of drug addiction and AIDS was accentuated by the death of its young creator, Jonathan Larson, of an aneurism only days before its triumphant premiere.

It’s clear that on stage “Rent” must be a powerful and affecting experience for many, and the fact that it’s still running suggests that its story of shifting loves, illness and the pressures of gentrification continues to have resonance for at least a portion of the Broadway audience. But in Chris Columbus’ big, splashy filmization, it seems, at least to a newcomer like this reviewer, like an artifact from an era long past–and one that, divorced from the larger historical context, fails to connect emotionally with viewers in the way it strives to do. The picture reminds one of another long-running Broadway powerhouse, “A Chorus Line,” which–like “Rent”–took a full decade of preparatory trial and error before making its way to the screen in 1985 and, when it finally did, proved, in Richard Attenborough’s screen version, a thudding disappointment. In retrospect perhaps the director didn’t deserve all the scorn that was heaped upon him two decades ago; “A Chorus Line” might simply have been so intrinsically theatrical a piece that any attempt to transfer it to the screen was doomed from the start. And the same might be the case with “Rent.”

Certainly Columbus, who took on the assignment of bringing “Rent” to the screen, has spared little effort to turn it into a movie. Though he makes a nod of the hat to the stage origins up front by introducing the main characters on the boards in an empty theatre, he quickly takes things into the streets and opens the story up with outside shots and big outdoor dance sequences (as well as pumping up a few of the songs by cutting away from the singers to offer flashbacks and “narrative” inserts that look like 1980s music-video montages). And Stephen Goldblatt’s camera is hardly static; it dances through the widescreen images as much as the cast does–though not always as elegantly as it might. But curiously the result still seems stagebound. (Just one example: the repeated answering-machine message of “Speak!” in the central loft apartment is the sort of thing that serves to link scenes together in a play, but grows increasingly irritating on film.)

Columbus has also hired most of the original cast members for their parts–something that will certainly resonate with fans of the stage version, especially since they’re solid if often relatively obscure performers, but that also has a drawback in that many of the stars strike one as perceptibly older than their characters probably should be. It’s just one of the cases of good intentions having unfortunate negative consequences. But that’s a minor hurdle. The larger one is that 2005 is not 1995, and the social problems that form the spine of Larson’s libretto (for that’s what the script by Stephen Chbosky, which adds the barest smidgens of dialogue to what’s essentially a sung-through score) no longer have the centrality or power they did a decade ago. Simply put, ten years does make a difference. And since the camera’s bringing the characters closer to us physically doesn’t increase our sense of identification with them–indeed, it actually diminishes it– the overall impact of the piece is severely undermined. On screen, at least in Columbus’ take on it, the material just doesn’t have much dramatic punch. (And though it might seem like heresy to say this, on the basis of an initial hearing Larson’s rock songs have too much of a sameness about them melodically, and his lyrics often come across as sadly limp.)

Still, one has to admit that the cast give it their all. Anthony Rapp certainly spares no energy as aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen who serves as the linchpin of the group, and Adam Pascal and Rosario Dawson hold their own as Roger and Mimi, the songwriter and strip-bar dancer who are the stand-ins for Puccini’s Rodolfo and Mimi–though Larson, underestimating his audience one hopes, can’t bear to follow through with his model’s tragic end in dealing with them (even “West Side Story” didn’t cop out this blatantly). He instead puts the emotional topper of the plot into the doomed love between drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), like Roger and Mimi AIDS victims, and they respond with good turns, even if Angel now seems a more contrived, idealistic conception than he/she once might have been and Heredia’s performance could have used greater subtlety in its transition to the screen. On the other hand, Idina Menzel comes on too strong as Maureen, the performance artist who’s dumped Mark for Joanne (Tracie Thoms); and Taye Diggs has little to do as Benjamin, the sell-out ex-roomie who’s gentrification of the neighborhood is a catalyst of the plot. Menzel is handicapped by the fact that her big number, the “protest song” against Benjamin’s plans, is one of the score’s weakest, and though Thoms has a good sequence doing the “Maureen Tango” with Rapp (it’s easily the most satisfying dance routine in the film, perhaps because it’s more “traditional” than most), she’s also burdened with an all-too-obvious fight scene with Maureen at their “same-sex union” party (which must be an ill-advised addition to the original calculated to appeal to the present concern with gay marriage–not to mention that it closes with a joke line so heavy-handed that it should have been followed by a vaudeville drum roll, ba-bam!).

The upshot of all this is that “Rent,” like so many recent Broadway musicals, comes across as a poor fit with the big screen. In that respect it’s not far removed from last year’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” which also enjoyed enormous popularity on the boards (indeed, still does), but proved a galumphing bore on film. Perhaps the new breed of musical that emerged in the 1968 with “Hair” simply isn’t amenable to filmization. (The one recent exception to the rule, “Chicago,” is really a more conventional, old-school type of musical.) Certainly it’s difficult to believe that anybody not already enamored of Larson’s show will fall in love with it by seeing this movie–especially since, if the screening this reviewer attended is any indication, the soundtrack is pumped through the speakers at a volume so loud that can only be described as ear-splitting.