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‘O’ Flawed yet Intermittently Moving

A Good Effort for a Teen Flick, and A Decent Shakesperian Recreation, but ‘Romeo & Juliet’ It’s Not

By Joyce W. Lee

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Written by William Shakespeare and Brad Kaaya

Starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles

Rated R

Before you dismiss O as the latest must-miss addition to the gamut of modern, teen-oriented adaptations of Shakespearean plays, credit should be given for what O attempts to accomplish. O is not made of the same stuff as Clueless. This updated tragedy’s release was delayed for a year and a half in light of the Columbine tragedy. However, a cast of teen heartthrobs and an equally bubbly tagline (“Everything comes full circle...”) seriously jeopardize the success of such a serious piece.

Complex undercurrents twist Shakespeare’s Othello into fascinating dimensions: Iago’s masterminding of a situation, the details which make his scheme possible, and Othello’s dual status as privileged general and racial outsider. The way in which any director chooses to portray these facets essentially determines whether the production is a tragedy or a travesty.

This translation of Othello into the language of teenagers forced director Tim Blake Nelson into the precarious position of “dumbing down” Shakespeare or losing some of his more mature audience. His film emerges as an flawed narrative that, at best, flows, and at worst, is downright absurd.

Odin (Mekhi Phifer) is a black student recruited by a posh academy to lead the Palmetto Grove Hawks to a national basketball championship. Though he is worshiped by all, from his teammates to the dean’s daughter, Desi (Julia Stiles), his presence amidst his cookie-cutter classmates creates a palpable tension. After being overlooked by Odin during an MVP speech, teammate Hugo (Josh Hartnett) embarks on a quest to ignite more tension. Tragedy ensues.

Nelson takes an unexpected directorial approach in characterizing the basketball coach, Coach Goulding (Martin Sheen), as Hugo’s absent father who publicly claims to love Odin as his son. Hugo’s malevolence springs from a jealousy rooted in a pseudo-sibling rivalry. Though this makes Hugo’s motives and actions more understandable and the audience more sympathetic, the original text was shrunk down to fit a particular mold with certain ramifications. Iago’s power and mystique stems from the inability to “read” or “figure” him out; the obvious motive sacrifices part of the essential substance of the play.

Furthering this unnecessary unmasking of Iago are the beginning and end of the film. Voice-overs by Hugo compare his own life to hawks and doves, providing an overly sentimental guide to Hugo’s motivation -- similar to the angst-ridden prating of a teenager’s diary. While this portrayal of Iago makes him more palatable to the general audience, again this becomes an incomplete interpretation of the Bard’s text. An ironic, almost funny fault of the film occurs near its end (Shakespearean purists take note): though Iago and Hugo both profess the infamous vow of silence at the end of the tragedy, Hugo speaks again, seconds later, in his concluding voice-over.

Some of Nelson’s interpretations work quite well, and his attention to key portions of the text provide intriguing moments in the film. Desdemona (Desi, in this case) falls in love with Othello through his stories of wondrous lands; Odin cleverly twists a tale around a scar that Desi finds on his back. The substitution of idolized basketball point guard for celebrated general surprisingly succeeds -- the rapid aerial shots and tracking relay the intensity of the game and the downward spiral of passions. Alas, the scarf that betrays Desi and Desdemona becomes an unbelievable bit of yarn, especially one silly scene as Em (Emilia in Othello, Rain Phoenix) eyes it and wrestles with her conscience.

What saves O as both Shakespearean interpretation and free-standing movie (if that’s possible) are the earnest attempts of the film. Perhaps its greatest success lies in the pressing topical possibility of Shakespeare’s text, especially in connection to the recent school shootings. The writing, though capable of producing cringes at key moments, also succeeds in relaying some of the spark of the original text. However, O does come perilously close to becoming a soundtrack-driven film -- the downfall of many a teen flick. The overall acting remains passable throughout; Josh Hartnett exudes a sort of wounded bunny look which works for his purpose. Mekhi Phifer turns in a convincing, mostly moving portrayal of the deceived, doomed hero. For what it wrestles with, O is a valiant effort which though flawed, works well enough. It’s a decent rental if you’re in a serious mood.