O (2001) / Thriller-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for violence, a scene of strong sexuality, language and drug use
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Andrew Keegan, Martin Sheen, Rain Phoenix, Elden Hensen, John Heard
Cameo: Tom Hollander
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Screenplay: Brad Kaaya (Based on the play "Othello", by William Shakespeare)
Review published March 8, 2008
Talk about being typecast. Julia Stiles (The Business of Strangers, State and Main) stars in her third modernized interpretation of a Shakespeare play (after 10 Things I Hate About You and Hamlet), not to mention the second film in two years where she is involved in a controversial interracial relationship (Save the Last Dance was the other). Given the output, these aren't exactly two great tastes that taste great together, and O might actually be the worst of a fairly lackluster bunch.
Set in the modern day, O tells the tale of Odin (Phifer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) a black basketball star in a mostly white private school on the verge of a potential NBA career upon graduation. He's dating, somewhat secretly, one of the more popular girls in school, the very pretty and very white Desi (Stiles), who just so happens to the the dean's daughter. Fellow player Hugo (Hartnett, Pearl Harbor), the coach's son, can't stand to be in the shadow of his gifted and beloved teammate, so he sets about causing a little controversy at his expense to break up the happy couple and make life miserable for Odin all around. Playing on the needs and desires of his fellow classmates, he sweet-talks them into performing acts that threaten to break the trust and love of Odin for his doting girlfriend, which has dire consequences that threaten to undo everything he has been building up to for so long.
The marketing department that pushed O would like you to believe that this is a controversial film that must be seen for its commentary on modern society. Sure, it's racially charged, contains teen murder, drug use, and rape, but somehow, it ends up more "much ado about nothing" than "Othello". In the wake of the Columbine school killings, the only controversy would have proven to be the time of release, but wiser heads prevailed, and the film was delayed for a couple of years.
Being someone that came into the film fairly familiar with the Shakespeare play, I found the constant allusions to the Bard's work to be a source of distraction. Hearing character names that are similar to the ones from the medieval-set work -- Odin for Othello, Hugo for Iago, Desi for Desdemona, etc. -- then trying to resolve how they would fit in plot wise in a similar fashion, constantly takes you out of the moment to draw comparisons. Alas, all of the comparisons unfavorable to the one set in modern times. I think with better screenwriting, something might have developed, especially if TV scribe Brad Kaaya could have made this film without the need to make it too similar to not draw inevitable comparisons.
The cast of actors give the film their all, but they're betrayed by the mechanics of a forced plot, not to mention the thinly-wafted circumstances that fuel their actions. There's just something that works in that grand old play, where power and position are key to reputation and standing. Putting the events into a high school setting in modern day doesn't work, as all that's left is the jealousy. it ends up overcooked and underdeveloped, too fanciful to believe as plausible, and yet too mundane to believe as imaginative. Hugo's manipulations seem too obvious in this context, and make little sense without the silver-tongued words to give them flight. In Shakespeare's play, Desdemona was a crown jewel of women, so you could see how someone else with an infatuation could go out of his way to court her despite Othello. In this film, Desi's nothing more than the attractive daughter of the dean, without anything worthy of note otherwise, and certainly not the sort of girl one would put life and limb on the line to try to capture the eye of, especially with a buff and pissed off boyfriend about.
Even actor-turned-director Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone, Eye of God) could see he had painted himself in a corner by not being able to adequately translate the motivations of the characters from "Othello" to the scenario of today's youth. Odin doesn't cross the line into criminal acts without the injection of a drug abuse subplot that has him going off of the deep end. It's a tragedy when heinous acts are committed through pure, unadulterated jealousy, especially when completely unfounded, but as presented here, he is so confused by so many factors, there is neither love nor hate in his acts, just a lack of inhibitions induced by potent narcotics. Given the themes of the film, there's not much of a love story, or a hate story, left to compel us.
I'm wondering if those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's "Othello" come away liking the film more than I have. Certainly, some of the more annoying factors of the film, the constant modern allusions to the original work, would mean nothing to those viewers. Trying to look at the film objectively, I can honestly say that, even if it falls short of the greatness of a Shakespeare play, as a straightforward film, Nelson's opus is overly melodramatic to a fault, with unconvincing character touches and a climax that borders on idiotic. If the story intrigues you, read the play, watch a performance, or rent one of the several film adaptations of the original work. If you're just watching because you like Julia Stiles or basketball flicks, perhaps this will be more to your liking; watching movies on that superficial a level, such thinly-developed material will have found its target audience.
©2008 Vince Leo