Doing a shakespeare play without the pesky inconvenience of Shakespeare’s language sounds a bit like trying to drive a car without gasoline. Add to that the prospect of ”Othello” set within the confines of an elite Southern prep school, complete with up-and-coming Hollywood stars making the Bard ”relevant” for a new multiculti millennium, and the whole thing, at a glance, may look as if it reeks of opportunism, of the ultimate in cynically chic teen-niche pandering. The first thing to say about O, therefore, is that the movie doesn’t just appropriate characters and situations from ”Othello,” updating them to the gossipy hothouse atmosphere of a contemporary high school. To an astonishing degree, ”O” gets the tragic Shakespeare mood, that somber stentorian passion born of hidden slivers of ambition and betrayal.
Some of the movie, admittedly, is labored. Minus the treacherous eloquence of Shakespeare’s words, the business of the stolen handkerchief now plays like the hoariest of hoary devices. Yet the central triangle retains its fevered racial-sexual ambiguity. Mekhi Phifer as the charismatic and forthright yet secretly vulnerable basketball star Odin, Julia Stiles as his ardent girlfriend Desi, Josh Hartnett as the weak and bitter Hugo, who out of a tangle of envy and self-hatred tries to bust their relationship apart — all three actors perform with a liquid contempo naturalism that’s as intimate as it is unforced. As the drama comes to its gradual boil, they reveal their emotions with utter nakedness as well.
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, from a script by Brad Kaaya, ”O,” which has finally arrived in theaters after over a year of controversial buzz and delay, turns out to be something far more rare than another novelty spin on Shakespeare (as exciting as some recent reinterpretations, notably the Ethan Hawke ”Hamlet,” have been). It’s a teen movie that jettisons all irony, inviting us to sink, with an earnestness that feels nearly lush, into the drive and clash of its characters. Odin, the only black student at Palmetto Grove Academy in Charleston, S.C., is a budding superjock, popular for his slam-dunk bravura and also for the casual charm of his off-the-court camaraderie. He’s devoted to Desi, and though it’s hardly a color-blind romance — he shares erotic jokes with her about being a ”buck” who sneaks into the ”big house” — the deep-feeling bond that they share, at parties and in her dorm-room bed, makes their relationship look like the essence of a youthfully sophisticated, post?jungle-fever love affair. Phifer and Stiles ground the movie in their playful sensual rapport; they make adoration look sexy. Odin and Desi see each other’s race, but mostly they see right past it.
Hugo, too, is on the basketball squad, and the fact that he’s not talented enough to be a star is just one of his problems. He’s the son of the head coach (Martin Sheen, bellowing like an all-too-believable prep-school Bobby Knight), and he feels passed over by his father, who was responsible for getting Odin a scholarship and who treats him like a saintly, favored second son. As a director, Nelson, who made the disturbingly authentic murder-in-the-Bible Belt drama ”Eye of God,” lets his camera swoop and dive on the basketball court, but he stages the rest of the movie with a no-fuss quietude and force, letting the drama emerge from the actors’ intensity. Previous Iagos, from Christopher Plummer to Kenneth Branagh, have seethed with private malice, but Hartnett, in a daring performance, plays Hugo as shy, moody, and all too easily wounded — a maliciously overdelicate James Dean who schemes out of impotence, coveting Odin’s success with a poison brew of admiration and envy. Hugo is one of Odin’s inner circle of chums, and when he decides to plot against him, you wonder, for all of his cunning, how his convoluted plan could possibly succeed. He seems outclassed at every level.
That’s where the racial politics of ”O” grow at once powerful and, to me at least, a little dicey for comfort. When Hugo tells Odin that white girls like Desi are ”horny snakes,” he’s playing on the paranoia about otherness that everyone in America knows. Phifer shoots bolts of accusation out of his wary dark eyes. He reveals the spectacle of intelligence working against itself: As Odin begins to suspect his lover of infidelity, the reality of his past — the fact that he didn’t grow up with these privileged white kids — starts to overheat and bend his judgment.
The motivation is laid out with meticulous care, and Nelson stages one extraordinary moment of primal anger: Odin, his roiling soul stoked by cocaine (he’s a recovering user), smashing the basketball so hard at a dunking contest that it shatters the backboard, much to the ignorant delight of the crowd. Yet the movie, from this point on, has little choice but to escalate Odin’s rage even further, and the effect, in its very overstatement, carries uncomfortable — if unintentional — racist overtones. The violent climax of ”O” that resulted in all the distribution ruckus turns out to be the worst part of the movie, not because it echoes Columbine but because in the context of a modern American high school, it turns Odin into a junior O.J. Simpson, a young black man whose civilized facade is merely cover for an intrinsic and bottomless rage. Unlike Othello, he withdraws, in his very vengeance, from the audience, and the movie, for all of its feeling, recedes from tragedy.