Making the classics hip for a new generation is a storytelling tradition nearly as embedded as the classics themselves: Screens and stages have been so flooded over the decades with updated, dressed-down interpretations of Shakespeare plays, or sundry Greek and Roman myths, that it’s tempting to label traditionalism the new revisionism. Even within this heavily tilled field, however, Esmé von Hoffman’s debut feature “Ovid and the Art of Love” feels eccentric and ambitious. The story of the ancient Roman poet Ovid, whose celebrated authorship of the “Metamorphoses” was followed by a much-debated banishment from Rome, hasn’t been overly mined by filmmakers: von Hoffman’s version, relocated to a semi-contemporary Detroit of concrete lots, college cliques and slam poetry nights, will be a curious introduction for some viewers.
This is an Ovid, then, who wears Converse chucks and a hoodie over his hessian robes — as one might just about expect from any ancient Roman poet played by springy, likable “High School Musical” alumnus Corbin Bleu. The film positions him as a smooth-talking player who also happens to be dourly serious about his art and its political impact: expanded from an earlier short, von Hoffman’s script dedicates itself to the notion of “practical poetry” by mixing its more solemn academic lines of inquiry with goofier strains of modern whimsy. The result isn’t dull, but it’s unclear at any point whether “Ovid and the Art of Love” is pitching its subject to high school students, college students or more esoterically inclined enthusiasts. There are echoes here of Spike Lee’s fizzy Aristophanes riff “Chi-Raq” in its application of yellowed scholarly texts to a fraught, fragmented urban American landscape — though the allegory here is too unspecific, and the cinematic language too restrained, to punch us between the eyes.
At the outset, “Ovid and the Art of Love” would appear to be a poetic primer for teens, the kind of film that comes as a godsend to harried literature teachers even if it fancies itself more down with the kids than it really is. A sketchy and somewhat superfluous framing device introduces Ovid via the reading of a shy, taunted grade-school bookworm (Dajuan Cook Jr.), for whom the ideas and exploits of the poet leap from the page to vivid life on the streets of Detroit — the social imbalances and political tensions of which are intended to reflect those of Rome under the reign of the emperor Augustus (John Savage). Wisely, the film doesn’t strain for ill-fitting Trump-era parallels, instead cultivating a vaguer, more timeless sense of youthful chafing against adult order.
“Side note for anyone who thought they were the first to be misunderstood by their parents: this is 31 B.C.,” Ovid mugs directly to camera — striking an unavoidably corny note that again seems to mark the film as a kind of highbrow afterschool special, until a barrage of f-words and fellatio jokes dismiss that possibility. Ovid heads to college to study law, but it’s clear he’s not cut out for a life within the system, as he dismays his minders by pursuing poetry instead — initially bombing as an open-mic novice at (of course) The Olive Tree Club, before his more slick-witted odes to modern living and sexual liberation take flight, delighting the masses and riling the authorities. (“You were heretical, offensive, a complete chauvinist, and I loved every minute!” enthuses a female admirer.) The causes of Ovid’s eventual exile to the remote Black Sea coast — here envisioned merely as deadening, neatly mown suburbia — may be disputed among historians, but von Hoffman blithely puts forward her own straightforward thesis: He was simply too hot to handle.
You’d expect fact-light fun to ensue from this premise, yet “Ovid and the Art of Love” turns stern and murky just as it should let loose, as the script gets mired in earnest but undynamic courtroom warfare over manifold forms of freedom. An indifferent almost-romance with Augustus’ rebellious granddaughter Julia the Younger (Tamara Feldman) never quite sparks the imagination either. Gradually, attention drifts from politics and poetics to von Hoffman’s oddball, budget-conscious world-building, and the subtle friction between Mary Lee Hannington’s grainy present-day production design and Nikia Nelson’s witty, toga-party-meets-Abercrombie costumes — though one wishes for poppier lensing, not to mention a more brazen soundtrack, to brighten the sense of place and cultural milieu. There’s more text than texture in “Ovid and the Art of Love,” which hints intriguingly throughout at resistance to a ruling American culture of hypocritical conservatism and sex-negativity — but it leaves a lot between the lines.