**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Elden Henson
screenplay by Brad Kaaya, based on the play "Othello" by William Shakespeare
directed by Tim Blake Nelson
by Walter Chaw Tim Blake Nelson's updating of Shakespeare's "Othello" is hamstrung by a deficient script that hastily neglects motivation and character depth in favour of a dependence on our familiarity with the source material to lend O its tragic gravity. It overuses animalism and the specious equation of high school basketball with military conquests and prowess, and unforgivably consigns the Desdemona character to a haughty afterthought and a series of shrill, shallow pronouncements. Another fatal misjudgment of the hackneyed and over-complicated plot (which actually seems to contradict itself right at its conclusion) reduces Iago's wickedness to his need to earn daddy's approval. Admittedly though, O's transplanting of "Othello"'s insular Venetian political setting to an exclusive upper class prep school is a wry and excellent decision, offering any number of opportunities for satirizing the glowering atmosphere and claustrophobic in-fighting of high school at its most advantaged.
Odin James (Mekhi Phifer in the "Othello" role) is the point guard (a.k.a. "court general"), most valuable player, and token African-American for his all-white, all-privileged prep school basketball team. Popular among fellow players for his fiery competitiveness and indisputable skill, Odin's best friends on the team are two-guard Hugo (Hartnett in the "Iago" role) and backup point guard Michael (Andrew Keegan in the "Michael Cassio" role). As befitting his status of star athlete, Odin's girl is the alleged prettiest girl in class Desi (Julia Stiles, inhabiting the "Desdemona" role in her third "teen" Shakespeare film), the daughter of the dean and the object of the treacherous dimwit Roger's (Elden Henson in the "Roderigo" role) frustrated affections. Hugo, jealous of his coach father's (Duke, sweatily emoted by Martin Sheen) affection for Odin, hatches a plot to work Roger and Mike (one overtly, the other covertly) against the emotionally fragile Odin's sexual jealousies and vulnerable insecurities as a symbolic minority.
A film left on the shelf for two years, exiled by Miramax after the Columbine High shootings sent Hollywood into a duck-and-cover attitude regarding teen-on-teen violence, O is buoyed by a ferocious performance from Phifer but suffers from its hip-hop updating of Shakespeare's language ("Nay, yet there's more in this; I pray thee speak to me as to thy thinkings" III.3 becomes "Yo, man, you can't be droppin' no load like this and just fade out, dawgs"). It sounds silly and lacks the sense of thoughtful consideration that magnifies the tragedy of Othello's ultimate miscalculation. The finale is overblown and truncated, edited to further Nelson's focus on Hugo's tortured equivocations and thereby robbing Shakespeare's conclusion of not only understated menace ("Put out the light, and then...put out the light!" V.2), but also the necessary pathos of Othello's ultimate act of humiliated vengeance.
When you fail to establish the Othello of your play as a leader of men who is stripped of his ability to reason by jealousy and the malignant intent of an erstwhile friend, what you're left with is a dumb and unpredictable kid being preyed upon by other dumb and unpredictable kids to no clear end. O, in other words, isn't so much a tragedy as a grotesquerie of bad behaviour and opaque reasoning. Sadly, the appropriateness of O's failure--school shootings are likewise grotesqueries of bad behaviour and opaque reasoning--doesn't forgive the failures themselves, and for all the good in O, there is simply too much that is confused and merely mediocre.
The best characters after the martyred Odin are the picked-upon Roger and Emily (Rain Phoenix), Hugo's girlfriend (Emilia is the wife of Iago in the play). Henson, as he showed in the otherwise shameless The Mighty, has a transparent quality about him that renders chubby Roger's torment at the hands of the brawny and the beautiful affecting and revealing. It's easy to see in Roger's high school crucible the echoes of the same kind of bullying that pushed Kleibold and Harris to attempt to assassinate their tormentors at Columbine. Phoenix's Emily is also believably confused and injured by her prettier classmates, and her betrayal of Desi is credible in the context of that lowered self-esteem and desire for recognition. The effectiveness of these minor players points to the deficiency archfiend Hartnett has in establishing a proper motive (his father is too underwritten and maniacal to create any kind of sympathy) and portraying a clarity of intent. Director Nelson seems to want Hugo (who mournfully contemplates his team's hawk mascot in one too many import-laden scenes) to be seen as the raptor amongst doves, yet at the conclusion, an extended voice-over monologue clarifies that the hawk somehow represents Odin James.
While it begins promisingly enough with a wonderfully stifling atmosphere and an overwhelming feeling of doom, O is suffocated by its desire to stretch Shakespeare's already weighty archetypal themes of sexual jealousy and rage to cover glib racial polemics (a discussion about the word "nigger" dominates one of Desi and Odin's cuddling scenes without greater purpose). The film has so little to do with race issues, really, that each go at inserting a racial treatise only highlights the film's more glaring racial insensitivities: the black guy is clearly a superior athlete, the white athlete needs to shoot steroids to compete with the black athlete (illegal drugs obtained, of course, from the only other black man in the film), the black guy is suspicious of the supposed sexual voraciousness of his white girl, the black guy, despite his repeated statements of Honour and overcoming stereotype, is easily led into the world of drugs and violence, and so on. The victim of a late edit that left all but ninety swift minutes on the cutting room floor, O is a disharmonious if laudably unpleasant product that shakes itself out as exactly what it is: a production of Shakespeare undertaken by a group of angry young actors gifted more with passion for the acts than any real connection to the emotional undercurrents of the drama.
O is a valiant effort to address a topical concern, but it neglects the requirements of narrative in favour of allegorical socio-political notions that are simply beyond its reach. It may be worth a look for Mekhi Phifer's star-making performance and Nelson's visual grasp of the satiric irony of his oppressive setting, but it never finds the voice required to make a reinvention of Shakespeare necessary and relevant. The greatest irony of the flawed O is that were it released days or weeks following the Columbine tragedy, it might have found a kind of resonance that two years and numerous school shootings later have dulled--and the kind of power by association that would forgive any number of filmmaking sins.
by Bill Chambers Lions Gate reissues O on DVD under their "Signature Series" banner. Specs are identical to that of their previous release, except that the second platter of that 2-disc set, which contained a restored version of Dimitri Buchowetzki's 1922 Othello, has been dropped. No reason for this is offered in press materials; perhaps Lions Gate's rights to the early Shakespeare silent lapsed in the interim. Letterboxed to approximately 1.85:1 and enhanced for anamorphic displays, the DVD presentation of O looks handsome though not always sleek due to fluctuating grain. Colour and contrast are standouts and the source print is in mint condition. The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio gives credence to the b-ball games, but dialogue is a little too quiet in comparison to music and effects.