With this updating, Othello and Desdemona have become Odin and Desi. Odin (Mekhi Phifer) is the sole black student at a ritzy prep school for the overly wealthy. He's also the star basketball player, destined for greatness in college ball, at least. He carries on a semi-secret love affair with Desi (Julia Stiles), a waifish Julia Stiles stock character, who is also the daughter of the dean (John Heard). The basketball coach (Martin Sheen) favors his star player, of course, virtually ignoring his own son Hugo (Josh Hartnett, in the famed and villainous Iago role), who even turns to steroids (gasp!) to improve his performance in an attempt to match Odin's court prowess. After years of no luck and less love, Hugo eventually masterminds a plan to disgrace Odin... all of which ends disastrously, as you know if you've ever read the play.
Unfortunately, while the real Othello spins a web of rage, misplaced trust, and betrayal, O portrays its characters as snotty brats who suffer through daily temper tantrums. Romeo and Juliet works in the teen genre because it's about teens. Othello is about adults with adult problems, namely a Moor suffering from a lifetime of persecution (and a poor choice of friends). O's Odin has just about everything he could ask for, despite having grown up "in the hood." Both Phifer and his character simply have no life experience to justify Odin's actions (Phifer's crucial experience in MTV's Carmen: A Hip Hopera notwithstanding). When the murderous finale eventually rolls around, it doesn't play as remotely believable.
Also, despite a 91 minute running time, the film drags. It takes at least half an hour to establish a) that Odin is a great basketball player, b) that he is in love with Desi, and c) that Hugo is pissed about a and b. The remainder of the movie is better paced, but not a lot.
From a technical standpoint, O is a much bigger mess. Directed by O Brother, Where Art Thou? actor Tim Blake Nelson, who has directed some creepy stuff in the past, including 1997's Eye of God, the film's biggest flaw is an abrupt, almost bad, editing job -- coming in to scenes too late and leaving too soon, and vice versa. The constant rap music soundtrack is appealing at first but becomes a grating noise after the halfway mark. And in the final act, details are garbled, glossed-over, or just plain wrong, all this despite Hugo's promise that he has considered every option in his "master plan."
None of this is meant to say that O is a total waste of time. At the very least, it's a far better film than the obtuse 1995 version of Othello, which starred Lawrence Fishburne and strayed far from the original tale but still relied on cryptic Elizabethan-era English. O is far more faithful to the original story than I would have suspected, even handling those tricky asides and character-hiding-in-a-closet scenes with aplomb. Ultimately, the source material keeps O mostly afloat, telling a unique and tragic story about how a single, well-placed rumor can ruin the life of somebody who otherwise has it made.
Mired in the "marketing violent movies to teens is bad" controversy of 1999-2000, O has been sitting on the shelf for a while, building a large volume of clips that claim it's the most violent thing since Natural Born Killers. A word to audiences -- this is far from the truth. In fact, those expecting a Columbine-style rampage (a ridiculous link which I've nonetheless found in 538 articles on Nexis.com) will be disappointed by the relatively tame ending -- comprising four gunshots and a quiet strangling.
O sister, where art thou?
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Screenwriter: Brad Kaaya
Starring: Steve-O as Steve-O
Also starring: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Martin Sheen, Elden Henson, Andrew Keegan, Rain Phoenix, John Heard, Rachel Schumate, Christopher Jones, Daniel Fried, Eric Gitter, Anthony Rhulen, Brad Kaaya