'O': IS THIS REALLY SHAKESPEARE?
Some Shakespeare doesn't belong in the classroom.
Or, at least, in a high-school setting, which is what the earnestly humorless ``O'' does to ``Othello.'' Implanting the grand tragedy in a South Carolina prep school, switching the Moor of Venice's military prowess with a ghetto kid's basketball talents and the Bard's mighty verse with expletive-laden modern slang, the movie is an abject lesson in just how far you can't go to make Shakespeare contemporary and relevant for teen-agers.
The movie has (in)famously been considered unreleasable for the past year or so, due to post-Columbine paranoia that its classically unhappy ending might inspire impressionable youngsters to kill their girlfriends and themselves. About the only thing stupider than that reasoning was the initial decision ... no, I won't go that far. The filmmakers and especially the young actors involved in this project certainly approached their tasks with great seriousness of purpose.
Trouble is, they just didn't understand that the play's emotions are simply too mature for kids this age. This is not to say that sexual jealousy and racial resentment cannot and are not capable of driving adolescents to the most extreme actions. Of course they are, as are much less powerful impulses.
But it was part of Shakespeare's genius that he knew precise depths to which different slights and paranoias affected people at different stages of their lives. That's why the gang violence and suicidal romanticism of ``Romeo and Juliet'' can be transferred successfully to kids from just about any era or culture. Ditto the slightly older Hamlet's sense of parental malfeasance and awkward schemes to expose them.
Iago and Othello's much more intricate acts of violence and betrayal are motivated by many more years' worth of perceived disrespect and impacted, perverted rage than the pretty young muffins of this screen version could believably have experienced.
Plus, replacing war with hoops - even if it's the state finals! - has an overall trivializing effect. Othello put his life on the line for his white folks; all Mekhi Phifer's Odin James has at stake in this movie is choosing which among many attractive college scholarships he'll accept.
All, that is, until his pretty Desdemona, dean's daughter Desi Brable (Julia Stiles, who you just can't make a teen Shakespeare flick without) starts spending too much time with their mutual platonic friend, Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan). This has been engineered by a Machiavellian teammate of MVP O's, Josh Hartnett's Hugo Goulding, who apparently can't stand the fact that his dad the coach (Martin Sheen, revving in high dudgeon and perspiring like he's still on that boat steaming deep into the Mekong jungle) prefers the better-playing black kid.
Even though their rapport transcends physicality - in the best-written scene of Brad Kaaya's screenplay, a naked O and Desi prefer to playfully joke about their racial contrast than to satisfy carnal desires - Hugo's insinuations and scheming manipulations inevitably drive O to unspeakably jealous anger. Unfortunately, he speaks anyway, and while I certainly have no problem with cusswords on film, in this particular context it truly sounds like English poetry is being murdered.
The other thing one can't buy is how someone as callow as Hartnett's Hugo could possibly organize, or even conceive, a beartrap as logistically complicated and psychologically astute as this one. Remember, everyone on screen is about two years younger than the last time we saw them, which somehow makes them look even more childlike than they probably were.
The director is Tim Blake Nelson, who played one of the chain gang escapees in ``O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' That was a funny performance, but such wit is absent from ``O.'' Not that wit would have been appropriate in this case. Keeping one's wits about the appropriateness of the material's interpretation, however, could hardly have hurt.
(Rated R: language, violence, sex, drug use)
The stars: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Martin Sheen.
Behind the scenes: Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Brad Kaaya, based on Shakespeare's ``Othello.'' Produced by Eric Gitter, Anthony Rhulen and Daniel L. Fried. Released by Lions Gate Films.
Running time: One hour, 31 minutes.
Our rating: Two stars
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|Title Annotation:||Review; L.A. Life|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Movie Review|
|Date:||Aug 31, 2001|
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