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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: O

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Rated: R
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: August 2001
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Martin Sheen, Rain Phoenix, Julia Stiles, Elden Henson

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4

Talk about bad timing - "O," which transplants Shakespeare's "Othello" to a modern US high school, was scheduled for release two years ago. But then some twisted boys in the real world went to school and shot their classmates and teachers. Suddenly, a movie with a key scene depicting armed students attacking one another didn't seem like such a great idea.

For awhile, it looked like "O" would never be screened. Then a smaller studio took the troubled film, releasing it not in early summer but in late August just in time for the new school year. Hmmm.

In this version of the classic tragedy, Othello becomes Odin Jones (Mekhi Phifer), star basketball player (and the sole black student) at a private Southern school. O, as he is better known, has everything going for him he's a sure bet for the NBA, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen, doing an operatic Bobby Knight impersonation) treats him like royalty, and his girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles) is charming and beautiful.

Ah, but trouble is brewing. Coach Goulding's son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) is jealous because dad likes O more than him. So the boy hatches a plan. He will use insecure, horny Roger (Elden Hensen), nave Emily (Rain Phoenix), O's best friend Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and his own poison tongue to ruin his rival.

The melodrama works because high school is quite possibly the most melodramatic place on Earth. When O takes in Hugo's lies, you understand, because love makes a high school student susceptible to the most outlandish ideas. As the Shakespeare play heads toward the horrific ending we know so well, it seems plausible, given the emotional fragility of the participants.

Still, this is a bumpy ride. The script makes liberal use of the word "nigga" and tosses a few "faggots" in as well. I don't know about you, but I could go a lifetime without ever hearing any variation of those words again. And don't waste my time arguing about oppressed groups reclaiming hate words for their own benign use when one of those words is voiced, regardless of the circumstances, some dim-bulb will assume that means it's okay for them to use it as well.

The acting is spotty. Josh Hartnett, sporting that godawful bed-head hairdo he favored before "Pearl Harbor," gives a performance consisting almost solely of wincing and whining, while Julia Stiles seems overly confined playing a character forced by the script to act illogically at the worst times. Mekhi Phifer struggles a bit during the more grandiose parts of his meltdown, but is credible overall.

Sadly, "O" is most convincing during its darkest moments partially because of the filmmakers effective use of the mossy Southern settings, but mostly because it has now become far too easy to equate horror and high school.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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