Shakespeare's Othello told as modern
Before Julia Stiles pirouetted her way to box office stardom in Save
the Last Dance, and long before you knew who Josh Hartnett was, the two
actors made a little movie called O. The film was completed in 1998, but
became so shrouded in controversy due to its school-violence content that
everyone short of Joe Lieberman himself insisted on the film's indefinite
O is a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello, complete with modern dialogue
and a hip-hop dominated soundtrack. The film stars Mekhi Phifer as Othello
(here named Odin James, Palmetto Grove Academy's basketball star), who
is convinced by scheming Hugo (Hartnett) that his girlfriend Desi (Stiles)
is cheating on him. As in all Shakespeare tragedies, the conclusion includes
the inevitable chaos and corpses.
The hype surrounding O's release did it a great disservice; the film
doesn't live up to its reputation or its potential. Brad Kaaya's screenplay
simply substitutes slang for iambs without bothering to modernize the
playwright's archaic plot devices. One glaring exception is the film's
digression into a cocaine subplot, which is used to explain Odin's murderous
temper. The technique feels hollow, and robs Phifer of a chance to explore
the behavior of a truly complicated character. O also highlights the loss
of nuance in Harnett's unimpressive facial expressions, and the failure
of Andrew Keegan (who plays the hunky pawn Michael) in proving he can
act better than a tube of hair gel.
O is unsure what to do with its uneven racial themes: curiously making
Odin the only African-American at the film's Southern boarding school
encourages the viewer to focus on this detail while the Palmetto Grove
student body appears to scarcely take notice. It doesn't help that the
only other African-American character with a speaking role is a drug dealer.
In general, the film is far more concerned with reaching its calamitous
climax than developing thematically.
Additionally, O rivals 2000's X-Men for the savviest use of a title letter.
Unmistakable are Nelson's clever angles that emphasize the spherical visages
of basketball hoops, rotundas, and a multitude of other images. Phifer
delivers a jaw-clenching, emotive performance, which simultaneously exudes
vulnerability and animal determination. Stiles (Hollywood's resident Shakespeare-remake
chick) makes unbelievably clueless Desi likeable, her cherubic mouth never
failing to, whether in agony or ecstasy, form the most perfect of the
film's "O'"s. Rain Phoenix is refreshingly calculated in her
portrayal of Desi's assertive but guarded roommate, Emily.
To be sure, O is provocative, but its edginess has nothing to do with interracial romance. O is disturbing, but not because of its gun-related violence. This is a film cheated out of artistic acclaim by unnecessary caution. Its temerity has been blown out of proportion; the fact that this is a sincerely entertaining movie is under-appreciated. The diction of and implications in O are hardly groundbreaking, but the spirited dialogue it facilitates is a welcome change.