Odin "O" James (Mekhi Phifer) is the star basketball recruit at an elite private school in America's deep south, and with the help of coach Duke (Martin Sheen), will go all the way to the NBA. He's the school's only black student, and he's dating the prettiest girl, Desi (Julia Stiles). This upsets the coach's son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who pretends to be O's best friend, but is really a cruel manipulator who plots to destroy the man he sees as his rival.
Review by Shannon J. Harvey:
This provocative modernisation of Othello - Shakespeare's classic tale of racially inspired betrayal - was completed three years ago. The Columbine tragedy struck while it was in the editing suite, and the sudden focus of high school shootings put it on hold. Its eventual (brief) appearance in cinemas thus had a topical American slant. But whatever the time, setting or predicament, Shakespeare's story is king, and only a fool could mess it up. Thankfully, actor-director Tim Blake Nelson ain't no fool, though we've seen him play one in Minority Report and O'Brother, Where Art Thou? He and screenwriter Brad Kaaya have intelligently transferred Othello to a contemporary setting and modernised its themes of love, war, betrayal, jealousy and wrath into a hotbed of wealth, teen sex, interracial relationships, bad parenting, drugs and guns. Character names are contemporised and iambic pentameter is swapped for modern lingo, yet the plot remains essentially the same; one man conspires to undo an outsider whom he envies.
O thus funkifies Othello like 10 Things I Hate About You funkified The Taming of the Shrew. It's cool, icy, and engagingly sinister - even for those who never read the text - and driven by strong performances from Phifer, who has a compact, forceful presence as Othello/O, and Hartnett, suitably brooding as Hugo/Iago. However, Stiles is merely serviceable as Desi/Desdemona, and Sheen is totally underused as Hugo's father (an invented character here). Hugo's relationship to his father is the root of his envy of O, yet father and son hardly exchange a single line of dialogue. Hugo's motives - besides basic jealously and racism - thus leaves you guessing. Nelson never really elaborates on these flaws during his dry, deliberate and technical audio commentary. He mostly speaks of modernising Othello via the use of location, music, cinematography, performances and motifs, and he compares the murderous climax to the real-life high school violence at the time. He also gives matter-of-fact explanations of why he cut six deleted scenes, though in this instance, some of them fill in the gaps and should have been left in. Less stimulating extras include bland analyses of the basketball scenes, questionless interviews with the cast, and detailed career bios.
Given the recent spate of violent crimes in high schools, Othello is one of the more relevant Shakespeare texts, and worthy of modernising. O might be flawed, but it's a brave, studious attempt.
Published September 5, 2002
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O: DVD (MA)
CAST: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Martin Sheen, Rain Phoenix,
John Heard, Elden Henson, Andrew Keegan, Anthony Johnson
DIRECTOR: Tim Blake Nelson
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson; Interviews with Julia Stiles, Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Tim Blake Nelson; Deleted scenes; Analysis of key basketball scenes
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Entertainment
DVD RELEASE: September 4, 2002