Made several years ago (so Josh Hartnett as a high-school kid isn’t the stretch it might seem), Tim Blake Nelson’s O was shelved following the events at Columbine High. The distributors thought that this story of high-school violence was too near the real-life events to be released, even though the actual connection is fairly tenuous. Sitting in a vault for three or so years has not improved the film, but neither has it appreciably hurt it. I’m a big admirer of “radical” Shakespeare — sometimes only in theory (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) and sometimes in actual practice (Richard Loncraine’s Richard III). So I was at least intrigued when I heard of a new take on Othello — and then I learned that Tim Blake Nelson’s film only preserved Shakespeare’s plot, so was immediately besieged with visions of Hip Hop Tales from Shakespeare. Fortunately, O is somewhat better than that. Unfortunately, it comes equipped with an entirely different set of problems. Set in Charleston, S.C. (for no discernible reason), O moves the story to a preppy private school where Odin James (Mekhi Phifer, Shaft) is the “ruler” of his domain, having been brought into the otherwise upscale, all-white school to play basketball. Naturally charismatic as well as a sports whiz, Odin’s popularity is unquestioned — except by his supposed best friend, Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett, Pearl Harbor), the son of basketball coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen). Hugo is jealous of his friend’s popularity and feels — not altogether wrongly — that his father cares more for and about Odin than he does about him. So Hugo sets out to destroy his friend after the manner of Shakespeare’s play. The idea probably sounds better on paper than it actually plays. Moving the drama from Venice to a prep school in Charleston is clumsy. The court intrigue of Shakespeare’s play seems forced when transferred to the basketball court. Worse, stripped of the language that immediately makes the play stylized, we’re faced with having to buy into a story with stylized ideas in an otherwise totally realistic approach. It doesn’t work. The convoluted complexities of Hugo’s scheme make little sense in this milieu. Nor do the film’s attempts at creating motivations for Hugo’s treachery fare much better. They’re all simplistic and while, yes, we see how callously Coach Goulding treats his son in favor of Odin, we feel Hugo’s pain less than we just see the mechanics of the idea. In the end, Hugo seems to do what he does because … well, because the script says so. It’s hard to fault Hartnett’s handling of the role, but the effort to make this version of Iago sympathetic fails regardless of where the blame lies. Mekhi Phifer’s Odin James (can the initials be accidental?) is far more successful. His performance is often riveting, never less than believable and finally achieves the one thing essential to the story: genuine tragedy. He is reason enough to see the movie. Also successful is the film’s handling of the violent nature of the story’s climax. Tim Blake Nelson goes out of his way to avoid the kind of balletic approach that makes violence “acceptable” to the movie-going public. The violence here is ugly and clumsy and brutal and realistic, making the tale’s “grand opera” climax utterly chilling and the one part of the film that truly works completely. O is a brave film that has a lot on its mind, but rarely seems to know how to say what it wants, despite the obvious efforts of everyone involved.
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