William Shakespeare plays reinvented as modern-language high school movies have become a mini-genre unto themselves in the last few years. But the very fact that "10 Things I Hate About You" ("The Taming of the Shrew") and "Get Over It" ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") were comedies gave them some leeway from literary scrutiny. They were, after all, just for fun.
That kind of forgiveness is hard to apply to the awkward alterations that arise in Tim Blake Nelson's "O" -- an update of the treacherous tragedy "Othello," featuring a private school basketball hero standing in for the Moorish general driven to murdering his wife by a malicious, coldly calculating officer in his command.
Mekhi Phifer ("Soul Food," "Clockers") stars as Odin James, an inner-city import to highfalutin Palmetto Grove Academy. Odin has run afoul of Hugo (Josh Hartnett in the Iago role), a hoops teammate silently enraged by the feeling that his utilitarian talents are going unrecognized in Odin's long shadow -- even by the coach, Hugo's own father (Martin Sheen).
Resolving to avenge himself upon his team captain for hogging the spotlight and usurping his father's love and respect (a clever twist added by screenwriter Brad Kaaya), Hugo concocts a diabolical plan to slowly drive Odin to jealousy and murder by convincing him that his devoted girlfriend (Julia Stiles) is sleeping around with a teammate (Andrew Keegan).
While this adaptation is deft in its modernization (Desmonda, the wife with whom Othello eloped, becomes Desi, daughter of the very rankled headmaster), the key to "Othello" is making the audience consider a guy who strangles his spouse out of jealousy to be a tragic figure. "O" doesn't accomplish that. Instead you wonder why Odin doesn't just break up with Desi and maybe sock her supposed lover in the kisser. I mean, it's high school. They've been dating four months. Let it go, man. There's plenty of fish in the sea.
Director Nelson (best known for playing the dimwitted Delmer in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") creates an effectively portentous atmosphere, spring-loading the film with palpable tension, as in the scene in which Hugo eats dinner in his father's office for the first time in years. Eager to assume this is an overdue bonding gesture, feelings of disillusionment and betrayal wash across Hugo's face when the only topic of conversation is Odin's unstable emotional state -- and how it's effecting his game.
In a sly stylistic move, this whole conversation is one take, shot through the office doorway so that only Hugo is visible, focusing all the attention on his momentary happiness turning to dejection then fury.
But while Nelson has a talent for style, when he sticks closely to Shakespeare's text, the source material feels like a straight jacket. In "Othello," the political, racial (the Moor is a black man leading a white army) and military overtones lend themselves to turbulence and the portent of violence in a way high school hoops just can't equal.
The performances here are interestingly drawn, but they too lack import. Phifer is broadly intense, but seems to be following a roadmap to his escalating states of tormented rancor instead of following the emotions themselves. Hartnett plays sullen Hugo's wounded ego well enough, but doesn't project the seething hatred and acute duplicity that makes The Bard's Iago so charismatically baneful (the villain is, after all, the narrator of the play).
Stiles -- whose cinematic Shakespeareance included "10 Things" and last year's original-text, Manhattan-based "Hamlet" with Ethan Hakwe -- fares best of the three leads. She lends Desi a post-feminist confidence that sees her angrily standing up for herself against Odin's sudden distrust. "If you want to stay with me," she rebukes, "don't ever talk to me like that again!" You go, girl.
Of course, this makes you wonder why she doesn't just break up with Odin when he starts acting psycho. Stiles and Phifer are convincing as boyfriend-girlfriend, but there's not enough fervor or consistency to their love to believe they'd put so much stock in this still-budding relationship.
For those familiar with "Othello," this film's modifications and permutations will be stimulating to analyze and scrutinize. For teenagers (at least, the ones who can get into the R-rated film), it may strike a chord as a variation on a theme all too familiar these days. Completed in 1999, the picture's release has scrubbed again and again after every school shooting for the last two years.
Although "O" is certainly an interesting experiment in the grand tradition of tinkering with Shakespeare, when those closing credits roll, this experiment fails to measure up.
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Steve-O as Steve-O
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