“I thought he wrote movies,” a student says of Shakespeare in an English class depicted in this rehabbing of “Othello.” If he did, then his price just went down, as this transferral of the tragedy of the Moor to a contempo American high school is something that never should have gone further than a class assignment to see if it could be made to work. It doesn’t, a fact that Miramax obviously recognized when the company palmed it off on Lions Gate for domestic release, set for August. Despite the name talent involved, “O” will translate into little more than “zero” at the B.O.
In modernizing this shattering tale of love, jealousy, deceit and betrayal, screenwriter Brad Kaaya has been faithful to the play’s emotions and plot mechanics, but these elements become burdens in a context that can’t support them, with the result the drama’s extreme and tragic actions seem fatally undermotivated. Add to this the dicey element of high school shootings, which is reportedly what kept the picture on the shelf for so long, and a touchy racial dynamic, and you have an unpalatable and unpleasant picture that was just a bad idea all around.
Updating turns Othello into Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), the star basketball player — and only black student — at exclusive Southern prep school Palmetto Grove Academy (it would be nice to be reassured that making his initials O.J. was purely accidental). O’s got it all happening; he is leading the school toward the championship; is sure to be heavily recruited by colleges; is the most popular guy on campus; and is dating the dean’s lovely daughter, Desi (Julia Stiles).
Among his teammates is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who is the son of Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) and, as a good-looking guy and one of the team’s other top players, should have little reason to resent O. But he does, overwhelmingly so, and therefore sets in motion a devious plot to poison O’s mind with the suspicion that Desi is carrying on secretly with another leading player, Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan).
The early basketball scenes possess some visual interest due to the unusual shooting strategies worked out by director Tim Blake Nelson and d.p. Russell Lee Fine, and the fundamental integrity Phifer and Stiles bring to their work sustains the film for a while; one has no doubt that these are two fine, intelligent young people destined for bright futures.
But when Hugo’s ugly rumor mill starts operating overtime, the drama become insidious and even odious in ways that don’t apply to Shakespeare. It’s never clear, for instance, why the crafty Hugo would involve an unpopular, unreliable rich kid, Roger (Elden Henson), in his scheme, or why his own girlfriend and Desi’s roommate, Emily (Rain Phoenix), so readily go along with the deception, which includes the bit with the scarf.
And while a great deal of time is spent detailing the depth and purity of the love between O and Desi, it’s still mighty tough to swallow that a young man of O’s cocky assurance and obvious potential would throw it all away over mere hearsay concerning a sexual infidelity. The film is full of confrontations, yet what’s missing is a scene in which the normally forthright O forces Desi and Michael into a room and demands to know what’s going on. By modern standards, his climactic behavior reps a case of distinct overreaction. Chill, man.
The narrative developments forced by Kaaya’s allegiance to Shakespeare grow impossibly contrived once the body count begins, and by the time it’s all over and five youngsters lie dead, it’s difficult not to reject the entire enterprise as a thoroughly misguided effort to make a classic tale somehow topical and relevant.
Dialogue is full of “bros” and “yos” and how O has been “played” by Hugo. Racial issues are dealt with in various ways — lightheartedly between O and Desi, directly by O himself, and with simmering understatement by Hugo and the adults — but it does seem rather strange that O could be the only black — male or female — at the entire institution.
Under trying circumstances, Phifer does a creditable job in the title role, playing it with sincerity, intensity and a solid sense of self-awareness. Stiles, in her third Shakespearean update after excelling in “Ten Things I Hate About You” and sleepwalking through “Hamlet,” similarly holds up her end of the bargain with a solid portrait of a self-assured young woman just beginning her journey into adulthood.
As the Iago figure, Hartnett is far more problematic. Part of the difficulty is that there’s no internal evidence that Hugo and O are best friends, as they’re purported to be, thus throwing into question O’s willingness to entirely trust the shifty guy. Despite his aura of low-key cool, thesp lacks the insinuating charm and oily persuasiveness that is always helpful in this role. Beyond that, his sickness is indicated, but never convincingly externalized.
Known mostly for his noteworthy turn as an actor in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Nelson follows up his 1997 directorial debut, “Eye of God,” with a film that displays some good visual instincts and talent with actors, even if these assets hardly begin to make up for the mistake of buying into the material in the first place.
Charleston, S.C., locations add a small measure of atmosphere to the largely interior-set story.