“O” was filmed in 1999, but not released until now due to some unfortunate resemblances it allegedly bore to the Columbine shooting. Lions Gate delayed the film to avoid stirring up bad memories and appearing exploitative.
All of this is good for “O.” Without the backstage drama, the film would barely rate a second thought. It is marked by some good scenes, some nice moments, some solid acting … and some rather hackish scenes, moments and acting, too. It is less than the sum of its parts, though not altogether a bad picture.
It is Shakespeare’s “Othello” retold in a modern high school, which seems like a perfect fit. Shakespearean plays are known for their heightened emotion and a feeling that anything good is WONDERFUL and anything bad is TRAGIC, with no middle ground. High school, you’ll recall, is the same way: The Big Dance is the most important thing in the world, and being rejected by someone you’re in love with is clearly the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone.
The new setting is a private school in South Carolina where basketball is king. The star player and Othello counterpart is Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), whose athletic abilities make him fiercely admired, but who still remains something of an outsider due to his being the only black student in school.
He chooses to share his Most Valuable Player award with Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan), which enrages fellow player Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett). Hugo feels he’s more important to the team than Michael, and he’s already jealous that his father, the coach (Martin Sheen), seems to love Odin more than him.
So Hugo (whose name is consistently pronounced “Yugo” to make it sound more like “Othello’s” Iago) begins scheming, with little motivation to speak of, to disrupt the lives of others. He targets the relationship between Odin and rich girl Desi (Julia Stiles), using his toady Roger (Elden Henson) to start fights and dig dirt.
You can tell the film will end tragically even without knowing anything about “Othello,” simply from the mood director Tim Blake Nelson establishes. The first batch of short, ominous scenes reveal that nearly everyone has some dark secret or other. This turns out to be unfair on the movie’s part when some things — like Odin’s run-ins with the law and Hugo’s steroid use — wind up going unused. They were introduced, it would seem, just to give us a sense of impending doom, like telling visitors your house is haunted and then never bringing it up again.
Hartnett is coolly evil as Hugo, and Phifer portrays the underwritten Odin with great fervor. He makes the most of the few moments Brad Kaaya’s script gives him in which to shine. His final speech, basically from Shakespeare but adapted to modern language, is poetic and passionate.
Then there’s Julia Stiles, dour as always, and Martin Sheen, who seems to have been filtered through Regis Philbin. Both detract from the film, though Sheen is more at fault than Stiles, who is just being the sourpuss she always is.
The dialogue varies. Some of it sounds stilted and forced, like it’s been translated directly from another language. Other sections are straight-up teen flick fare. And some key moments, like the speech previously mentioned, capture the dark, melodramatic flavor of the Bard himself.
When it’s all over, one must wonder what all the fuss was about. The finale has no similarities to the Columbine killings, except that it involves teens shooting each other, and it’s certainly not the first movie to do that. Its message — hinted at in an opening voice-over from Hugo and spelled out with his last couple lines — would be a fine one, if it had been established over the course of the film. This is a movie that holds your interest, but doesn’t do anything with it.
B- (; )