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
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), naïve 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
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott