Film Reviews

O

By • Aug 31st, 2001 •

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O is a modern teen retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello. It almost works but, because O did not go as far as it should, fails to capture the true drama of Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy and fatal deception. The updated premise was a good one: black basketball star Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) has been recruited by an elite, all-white private school. He is having an affair with blond Desi (Julia Stiles). Odin is the only black kid in the school and nobody seems bothered by his being shipped in; or jealous about his winning the most desirable girl in school. Even Desi’s father, the school’s dean, played by John Heard, doesn’t object to the relationship once he finds out about it. So these important dramatic plot points are whitewashed away.

There is a lovesick rich kid, Roger (Elden Henson), who, lurking in the background, wants to date Desi. Odin is the school’s star and isn’t isolated by his race, or self-conscious about his situation. More dramatic plot points thrown away. Everyone adores Odin, including Coach Goulding (Martin Sheen on steroids). There’s only one problem, fellow teammate, and the coach’s son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), is deeply disturbed by his father’s very public adoration and love for Odin. He plans on destroying Odin by igniting his jealousy. He suggests that the very faithful Desi has been cheating on Odin with another teammate, her best friend Michael (Andrew Keegan). Michael is not shown to be a threat to Odin, but is a friend.

Before Hugo tempts Odin to question Desi’s fidelity, she accepts a rubber band engagement ring from Odin. Desi clearly is in love with Odin and he has absolutely no reason to doubt her. However, Odin, who hasn’t shown a bit of jealousy or the pain of racial discrimination, believes Hugo’s tale. Remember in RAGING BULL when Jake La Motta accused his wife of cheating on him? The director, Martin Scorsese, set it up so that we questioned her denial. It fueled La Motta’s rage. Maybe it was her icy denial, maybe it was the way she walked into the room, maybe it was the sound of her voice. She was guilty of something. Likewise, La Motta showed a clear psychological bent towards violence and sexual paranoia. He had a volatile streak that could be ignited. Julia Stiles is just a nice girl. She doesn’t bring an edge to her role of Desi: where is the thrill of dating the black basketball star, the pleasure of being the unavailable golden goddess desired by her male classmates, the envy of her girlfriends? We don’t for one minute feel Odin’s jealousy. Desi would never cheat on him with plain Michael. Why should she? The payoff isn’t set up properly by the director, Tim Blake Nelson, and, because this is the director’s task, the film’s failure rests with him. Hugo’s motivation is more clearly defined: he feels he is being ignored for his contributions to the team and dismissed by his father. Hartnett shows a very compelling, disturbed presence here, with wardrobe unfortunately giving him a distracting, lousy hairdo as his only prop to telegraph his outsider awkwardness.

Desi should have been more seductive, Odin more a threatened paranoid, and Michael a more compelling rival. The racial tension is absolutely non-existent and it blunts the final outcome. This is drama Shakespeare would never have sidestepped.

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