Jonathan Larson's script and compositions are there among the best and he gives us a story that is so moving that it would be hard to mess it up. The movie focuses on a group of friends, mostly from the viewpoint of Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp), a man giving up a nice life to live in New York and find himself as a filmmaker. He lives with a songwriter/singer named Roger (Adam Pascal) who wants to put out one great song as he is dealing with AIDS. Also entering the picture is Mark's ex-girlfriend/activist Maureen (Idina Menzel) and her new girlfriend Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Mark and Roger meet a woman who lives in their building, Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson), who is dealing with AIDS and a drug problem while working at a strip club to make whatever money she can. Lastly are two former roommates of Mark and Roger. Benjamin Coffin III(Taye Diggs) is a man who gave up the Bohemian ideal to try to create a film studio after marrying into wealth. Thomas Collins (Jesse L. Martin) has gone off to study/teach and returns to meet a companion of his own, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Mildly confusing, no? The story focuses on one year of their life, from Christmas to Christmas and what happens within that year. There are problems relating to AIDS, death, drugs, money issues, and a few love stories thrown in along the way. While it sounds like a long way to go for this, it is truly worth the ride.
Most of the movie cast are simply reprising the roles that the created on Broadway. Only Tracie Thoms, subbing in for Fredi Walker, and Rosario Dawson, replacing Daphne Rubin-Vega, were not in the original Broadway cast. While the idea of bringing the Broadway cast with them from the show eased a lot of doubts about the movie, it also created a problem. The story is supposed to be focusing on a group of young men and women, in their early-to-mid 20s from what is being said in the movie (including the character of Mimi being 19 when we meet her). The problem is that these actors no longer look that age. That is only a mild detraction from the film.
In fact, a lot of the acting is quite good. Despite not being in the original cast, Tracie Thoms is fantastic in her role and made you want to follow her character even when she was just in the background. Idina Menzel was quite good, although no longer truly seemed to fit the part in my eye. Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal know these characters inside and out and had no problem bringing that character back to life for the screen. Jesse L. Martin was very good, although the age factor seemed more noticeable with him than with any other character in the movie. Wilson Jermaine Heredia makes you entirely forget that he is a man in the movie and wraps himself around this character that he created. Finally, Rosario Dawson does an apt job as Mimi Marquez. She didn't seem to take a lot of risks, whether it was acting or vocally, but conveyed more than enough to complete the role.
As I mentioned above, the problem lies very much in the directing of the film. Chris Columbus is a fine director, showcasing his eye in films like some of the Home Alones, Harry Potters, and the movie Only the Lonely. However, it feels too often like he is shooting a sequence of music videos rather than a film. This is never more prevalent than in his handling of the song "What You Own". The song is somewhat of an indictment on modern culture, somewhat of an escape song, a very nice piece. In the movie it has been turned into a roadtrip song, turning one of the only weaknesses in the script (a segment where a character leaves then quickly comes back) into almost a rock video.
As I said, the material here is fantastic. With a better vision of the film, this could have been an Oscar contender easily. However, that is what separates the great from the good, and while this movie has moments of greatness, its not enough to overcome the partial mediocrity. 7/10