Like a dog-eared copy of Othello at the local library, O has sat on the shelf for a couple of years, not so much forgotten as ignored. Caught in the crossfire of Columbine and other school shootings, this adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, which is set in an all-white-but-one prep school in South Carolina, culminates in a hail of bullets. And its distributor, Miramax, decided that such violence was more than your average 17-year-old could handle, deep-sixing the film until sued by its producers. An act of moral cowardice, obviously, but what interests me is that Shakespeare's Othello, of all things, was deemed too relevant to students' lives. It's enough to make a high school English teacher weep with joy.
Alas, the movie itself is pretty lame ' Cliff Notes with pictures. But it's got a cast that, during the two-year waiting period, has raced toward stardom. Mekhi Phifer is Odin, a b-ball star who's dating the dean's daughter, Desi (Julia Stiles). And Pearl Harbor's Josh Hartnett is Hugo, the basketball coach's son, who's also on the team but who's been replaced in his father's affections by the Godlike Odin ("O" for short). And what does he do about it? He sets in motion a diabolical plan to bring Odin down ' a whispering campaign built around that green-eyed monster, jealousy. When Odin gets it into his head that all white girls, including Desi, are "horny snakes," chaos is come again.
As in almost all productions of Othello, there's pleasure in watching Hugo snare his prey, despite the lack of shadings in Hartnett's performance. Where is Iago's satanic wit, the sheer joy he gets from yanking on the strings and sending the puppets to their doom? Hartnett looks a little like Anthony Perkins, but there's no menace in him. Nor does Phifer have the kind of cockiness we might expect out of O. Should we have to be told that O is livin' large? Shouldn't it be obvious? As for Stiles, who after 10 Things I Hate About You and O has become one of our leading Shakespeareans, she does what she can with a role that, even in Othello, is rather thankless.
Both liberal-minded and literal-minded, O tries to translate Othello into a moral lesson for young people by holding on to the plot and ditching the poetry. Some of the transliterations are unintentionally amusing: Instead of "Look to your wife," we get "Watch your girl, Bro." (I half-expected Desdemona's handkerchief to be replaced by a sweat towel.) But the poetry is where most of Shakespeare's meaning resides, the infinite subtlety of his characters' thoughts. Without that, we're left with what drama critic Kenneth Tynan once called "a tale of an oaf gulled by a con man." Director Tim Blake Nelson, who was the dimmest bulb among the trio of yokels in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, showed great promise in his directorial debut, 1997's Eye of God. Here, he seems lost in a world of cell-phone soliloquies.