- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

When I was young, any movie that presumed to call itself "O" and revolved around a basketball phenomenon would have had to be about Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to command a measure of credibility.

The "O" that has emerged from Miramax purports to update William Shakespeare's "Othello," not such a hot idea when all is said and done.

The principal characters are transposed to a prep school in Charleston, S.C., called Palmetto Grove. A black scholarship player, Odin James (Mekhi Phifer, looking seriously undersize and overage), has lifted a previously all-white squad in an all-white student body to state-championship contention. Unfortunately, his court prowess has aroused the seething resentment of Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), also a varsity starter and the taken-for-granted son of hoops coach Duke Goulding. The coach is a ranting basket case played by Martin Sheen.

Although Hugo is not deployed as the audience's vicious and malicious confidant in the same respect that Shakespeare compels us to apprehend Iago, he is given more explicit reasons for holding a grudge. Dad gushes all over Odin, including the public testimonial, "I love him like my own son."

Odin also has won the heart of Desi Brable (no kidding), the daughter of the school's dean. Julia Stiles and John Heard play daughter and father in this complementary estrangement. Evidently, the dean has been unaware of the romance and reacts as vehemently as Brabantio, Desdemona's dad, when a nasty anonymous call punctures his ignorance. Dean Brable's prejudicial response might prompt his resignation in a modern context. But then, one should make allowances for a man who was playful enough to name his daughter after a Cuban bandleader.

Miramax postponed the initial release of "O" in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, an understandable precaution. The wounds, mortal and otherwise, inflicted by daggers in "Othello" become blunt and ugly gunshot wounds in "O," and Hugo's rationalizations veer into shades of pop nihilism that postdate his prototype. While poisoning Odin's mind against Desi, for example, he proclaims, "You make your own rules."

As one of the more prominent and presumably accomplished young people on campus, Hugo is rather poorly constituted for mistaken identity with the goth avengers of Columbine.

The persistent conceptual shortcoming of "O" is that the Shakespearean borrowings never harmonize with the modern prep school setting and a modern idiom. "O" doesn't try to transpose Shakespeare's dialogue to Palmetto Grove. It attempts slangy paraphrases. The guys on the team are extremely fond of such terms of endearment as "player," "bro" and "dawg."

The writer and director (Tim Blake Nelson, who played the nicer of the hayseeds who escaped with George Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") flaunt their disillusioning handicaps in a sequence set in an English class where the subject is Shakespeare. You would think someone might notice that the sinister interplay between Hugo and Odin is beginning to resemble the plot of "Othello."

This is a more sexed-up "Othello" than ordinary. Odin and Desi, for instance, get naked in her dorm room, while roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix, who bears a strong resemblance to Joaquin) discreetly covers her face in the other bed.

To borrow a cliche, "O" dredges up more questions than answers while endeavoring to simulate "Othello" in contemporary trappings. Not all the questions are substantial, either.

Mr. Sheen's hamminess may turn out to be the best selling point in the picture. Coach Goulding definitely is a new element because Shakespeare never asked us to feel the pain of Iago's dad, wherever he was. Mr. Sheen convinces us that coach will emerge from the tragedy regarding himself as the most persecuted man on the face of the earth.


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