O (2001) 

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Mekhi Phifer
Josh Hartnett
Andrew Keegan
Julia Stiles
Rain Phoenix
Elden Henson
Martin Sheen
John Heard
Anthony Johnson

Tim Blake Nelson



Time: 95 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: High School/Romance/Drama

Being unfamiliar with the original work by Shakespeare, I haven't a clue if this updated high school version of Othello captures the Bard's true intentions. What I can say is that the vibrant and intense performances of Pfeffer and Hartnett counteract the weirdness of the modern teenage setting. Hartnett's stone-faced style of acting works to his advantage here as the jealousy-infused, cold-hearted Hugo. PEARL HARBOR may have put him on the map, but this turn proves he's more than just a pretty face. It's his desire for his father's love and admiration that sets the many lies and betrayals in motion. Phifer plays Odin, the star of their prep school basketball team and the young man who gets all the Coach's (Sheen) attention, much to the rising ire of his son who is also a member of the squad. Hugo is tired of being berated and unappreciated. He wants to be number one in the eyes of his father and his fellow students.

To achieve that end, he enlists the help of the Desi-obsessed, and thus easily manipulated, Roger (Hensen) to inflame Odin's fears that Desi (Stiles) is not the faithful girlfriend he thought she was. Hugo also engages the unwitting aid of Michael, a fellow team member who was suspended and is desperate to get back on the court. He convinces Michael the best way to rejoin the team is through Desi's good graces. If she feels bad for Michael, she will encourage Odin to speak up on his behalf. Of course, his constant presence at her side only fuels Odin's anger and jealousy, thus making him an easy target for Hugo's trickery. Odin's self-destruction will open the path to Hugo's success, as well as pave the way for Roger to steal Desi's heart. At least, that's the line he sells to Roger.

His machinations work like a dream and play out believably until the final third of the film where everything goes haywire. As desperate as his emotions may be, and even in light of what's been occurring on high school campuses across the country, I found Hugo's murder plot to be highly insane and very hard to swallow. It wouldn't be a Shakespearian tragedy if most of the main cast didn't wind up dead, but still, this one goes beyond the bounds of reality. Despite Hugo's best efforts, his compatriots do not exactly carry out his evil plot as smoothly as he hoped. Though he takes out his main competition, he also winds up holding the bag. It's a tangled mass of emotions, performed admirably by Hartnett and Pfeffer that drags your heart into the fray while your mind giggles at the absurdity of it all.

Much like Baz Lurhmann's ROMEO + JULIET, O is a good Shakespeare primer for those unfamiliar with the original plays. Anyone over the age of 25, will probably not be as taken with this version, as it relies heavily on the high school milieu and it's hunky cast. That being said, I will not cast as much of a disparaging eye on Mr. Hartnett and his upcoming projects. Hugo's insane desires are what drive this film and he at least makes the inevitable crash and burn interesting to see. Phifer also brings great pain and sensitivity to his character, showing us a new side to the generic all-star athlete role. When Odin goes off the deep end, there's no doubt there's going to be hell to pay. Stiles has the thankless role as the object of desire and though smart and attractive is not really allowed to show off her talent here. Desi's a pawn in a game she's not even aware she's playing and therefore, her character is lacking any sort of motivation or depth. She and Pfeffer have good chemistry, but she isn't made out to be special enough to warrant the murder and mayhem that come to pass.

Though I guess that's not really the point. The film is not about her or Odin, but Hugo's desperate bid for stardom. Looked at in that light, it succeeds in telling his twisted tale. Is it first-rate entertainment? Well, not really. The leads really try to infuse the film with passion and energy, but their efforts are muddled by poor acting from the supporting cast and rather inane plotting. Ultimately, this is one of those films to watch when you're bored and looking for something with intelligence, class and a not-so-happy ending.

"I did what I did, and that's all you need to know. From here on out I say nothing."

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