REVIEW: Uh-"O": More Bard Days in High School
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 08.31.01) -- You kind of know what you're in for at the start of Tim Blake Nelson's "O," what with the arty shots of birds in flight, Verdi on the soundtrack and Josh Hartnett (playing the Iago role in this contemporizing of "Othello") voicing a portentous narration about the desire to be "hawk-like." And things only get worse from there. I'd like nothing more than to confirm that "O," which was filmed in 1999 and subsequently shelved by Miramax (reportedly because of some uncomfortable similarities to the Columbine High School shootings) is an innocent victim of the Disney-owned mini-major kowtowing to its corporate parent. I'd be delighted to report how the belated release of the film this week by the Canadian Lions Gate Films represents the noble rescuing of an important, worthy work. But a few scenes into "O," and it's readily apparent that Miramax was quite possibly acting more out of concerns over quality than controversy. This is a thunderously bad work, and one that pulls off the twofold insult of cheapening Shakespeare at the same time that it unconscionably exploits the red-hot subjects of school-related bullying and violence.
"O" is the latest in the series of modern-dress Shakespeares, with predominately twentysomething casts, that has ranged from banal (Gil Junger's "10 Things I Hate About You") to brilliant (Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet"). And, for what it's worth, screenwriter Brad Kaaya sticks relatively close to the events of the original text, even as he oversimplifies them. The Moor here is Odin James (Meki Phifer), the star point guard of an otherwise all-white high school's championship basketball team, and current paramour of the dean's daughter, Desi (Julia Stiles). Enraged by the preferential treatment his coach/father (Martin Sheen) seems to show Odin, Hugo (Hartnett) hatches a diabolical scheme to tarnish Odin's start status. Co-conspiring with the Desi-infatuated Roger Rodriguez (Elden Henson), Hugo plots to send Odin into a jealous rage by leading him to believe that Desi is having an affair with Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan), Odin's right hand man on the b-ball court.
Nelson is trying at something semi-ambitious here, but his execution is hopelessly muddied. The mesh of subject matters -- that which is taken from Shakespeare and that which is ripped from yesterday's headlines -- is, to say the least, jarring, and maybe it could never have worked. On the one hand, Nelson wants to probe the currents of low self-esteem and suppressed rage that have been pinpointed as contributing factors to the tragedies at Columbine, Santana, et al. On the other, he's trying to make a grandiose decree about love and jealousy and revenge, on par with the source material. These two sentiments are constantly at odds with one another, and Nelson is such an unsubtle filmmaker that, in the effort to make sure we don't miss any of his perceived "Othello"/school-violence parallels, he ends up telegraphing this discordance into almost every scene, in some cases even broadcasting it over a loudspeaker.
Odin isn't just the only black student in the school, he's characterized solely in terms of his sports and lovemaking abilities. (Specifically, in the bedroom scenes with Stiles -- the very explicit interracial coupling that "Save the Last Dance" shied away from -- Phifer is asked to play a demeaning caricature of the smooth-talking black lothario, complete with frequent references to his physical attributes, ruining any genuine intimacy these scenes might have had.) Hugo, who should be the character that keys us into the movie's promised discussion of teen psychosis, is an even foggier conception, because instead of getting inside the character's motivations, Nelson and Kaaya create a series of half-hearted, external "explanations" of Hugo's behavior, from his perceived lack of paternal love to a steroid addiction.
"O" moves very slowly, and it has the stilted, over-rehearsed feel of Campbell Scott's recent "Hamlet." In most scenes, Blake's actors are posed like porcelain figures in the center of the frame, as though they're afraid to move or have simply taken one too many takes to have the energy to do so. And the line readings are so passionless (except for Sheen, who hoots and hollers like a man incanting a coronary), that the movie seems more period than Oliver Parker's 1995 "Othello," which was period-set. Blake seems timid in the director's chair too, shooting some truly enervating basketball and sex scenes, and showing none of the sleek confidence that characterized his debut feature, "Eye of God."
Had "O" opened last year or the year before, as originally scheduled, it might have felt a bit more potent. But arriving as it does, on the heels of Larry Clark's superb "Bully," it seems a comic-book pastiche of the bonafide adolescent claustrophobia that Clark has made into his stock-in-trade. Nelson and Kaaya just don't seem to "get" teenagers in any truthful way, and as the film ambles towards its macabre, blood-drenched finale, they throw all remaining credibility to the wind in a last-ditch effort to synch up Shakespeare's plot mechanics with their own. They throw the proverbial race card around like a deranged Las Vegas blackjack dealer and, consciously or not, they play up the stereotype of black male violence in a way that I'm quite sure the Bard never intended.