Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Cast: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Elden Henson, Andrew Keegan, Rain Phoenix, Martin Sheen
MPAA Rating: (for violence, a scene of strong sexuality, language and drug use)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 8/31/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
The movie market is overrun by movies aimed directly at youth. Translation: movie theaters have become a haven of mindless entertainment to be fed upon by masses of people who are seeking pure escapism and have nothing better to do with their money. Challenging preconceptions, forcing a tough look at reality, actually trying to say something about any topic are all becoming notions of the past. So when a film like O, with a predominately young cast and, therefore, target market, comes along and does those things, I am very happy. Here is the latest movie that sets classic literature in modern times, and it is possibly the best of them. The term "re-imagining" is being tossed around a lot now, and this is a great example of how it can be done properly.
The basis for the film is Shakespeare’s Othello, and anyone who has read the play will enjoy the play on names and situations. More importantly, though, they will be very surprised how effectively the material fits its backdrop. Placed in a prep school, the story changes the noble Moor to the star player of the school’s basketball team. The senator’s daughter is now the dean’s daughter. The back-stabber is still the confidante, simply now on and off the court. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is said star, and Desi (Julia Stiles) is his girlfriend. Odin seems to have everything going for him—potential, love, friendship—and that is too much for Hugo (Josh Hartnett) to bear. Even Hugo’s father (Martin Sheen), the basketball coach, appears to love Odin more than his own son. Hugo slowly sees the opportunity to bring the star down, and a conspiracy begins.
In updating Shakespeare’s source material, there also appears an interesting thematic update occurring. The film doesn’t deny us fatal character flaws, but there are slight differences from Shakespeare to today. We no longer have vaulting ambition; it’s become cocky arrogance. Even envy has turned into sarcastic class-awareness. All the universals—anger, jealousy, lust, revenge—are still present, but that goes without saying. Is this a criticism of the material? I actually admire the changes. In a way, these adaptations demonstrate just how trivial the arising conflicts are and show just how trite we’ve become as a culture.
The actual content of the film, however, is far from trivial. O sat on the shelf for two years in fear of receiving the wrath of headstrong Senators. Crazy/Beautiful was toned down because of that fear, and one of the movie’s messages was compromised. Here, there is no shying away from the material. The conclusion of the tragedy is kept in its violent entirety. There is a certain irony on a few levels because of this fact. Anyone who would oppose the content of the movie would say it exploits a series of tragic events. They would, of course, be wrong. It's neither an exploitation nor a warning—that is not the film’s purpose. It’s purpose is to explore the behavior it presents. The movie was held back for this reason—most likely to the disgust of the filmmakers—and yet the conclusion is all the more devastating because of the delay. We’ve unfortunately come to accept events like this as reality, and so when violence does result, it touches upon many fears and painful memories. This is one of the more devastating resolutions in recent memory. No matter what anyone could say about artistic freedom, O gains a lot of credibility from the time that has passed since it was completed.
I’m not entirely sure if O is the best of the recent teen-oriented modern updates, but it is by far the best acted of them. As Odin, Phifer is consistently good. He really hits the arrogance of his character, giving him the right balance between being sympathetic and cold. Julia Stiles isn’t given much to do, but she is quite effective as the misunderstood innocent. The real surprise is Josh Hartnett as the Iago-inspired Hugo. I have not really considered any of his performances to be noteworthy or even all that good. I’ve found them monotone and bland, but he really shatters that preconception here. He is extremely good—almost great. Lurking in the shadows is not something every actor can do effectively, but he does it with style.
Whatever controversy O may garner, it is both unwarranted and deserving. This is a film that doesn’t pull punches with its content. For that it should be praised, not damned as it may well be. Anyone who actually takes into consideration recent events and actually has taken time to think about their causes and ramifications will see exactly what the film does so brilliantly. It takes a tragic phenomenon and puts it both in a universal and intelligent context.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.