With the commercial success of teen-targeting Shakespeare updates such as Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" and 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You" (sounds like . . . "The Taming of the Shrew"), it must have seemed like a pretty good idea a couple of years back to make a teenage Othello set in a posh boarding school. "O" (directed by "O Brother, Where Art Thou" co-star Tim Blake Nelson) wrapped more than two years ago, at the height of the Bard-on-hormones trend, but has sat on the shelf since. With its bloodbath ending (given the familiarity of the source material, I don't think I'm giving anything away here), the film got benched every time some real-life wacko with ammo started blasting in the school cafeteria.
On the surface, at least, "O" still seems timely, with its themes of adolescent violence and racism. Odin (Mekhi Phifer), the top basketball star and only black student at his tony high school, enjoys glory on the court and the affections of Desi (Julia Stiles, also a lead in "10 Things"), the most popular girl in school. He's also got a best friend, Hugo ("Pearl Harbor's" Josh Hartnett), who's got his back--or so he thinks. In truth, all that the resentful Hugo has is a major inferiority complex, exacerbated by the neglect of his dad (Martin Sheen), the school's basketball coach, who clearly favors Odin. So Hugo starts scheming. He convinces the impressionable Odin that Desi is two-timing him, and, as in "Othello," things get messy.
"O" is a tragedy, all right--a tragedy of failed metaphors. Whatever you might think of Luhrmann's thumping MTV take on "Romeo and Juliet," the original did concern teens and their particular emotional circumstances. Taking all the heavy stuff that goes on in "Othello" and applying it to the adolescent set just doesn't pan out. Othello and his posse were soldiers, fighting a war in which lives were lost; Odin is leading his high school basketball team to the state championship. Sorry, it's not the same thing. Othello and Desdemona were married; Odin and Desi are youthful sweethearts. Why doesn't it ever occur to Odin to just break up with her?
Even more disturbing is the implied message that Desi's tragic end is only tragic because Odin was duped. Had she actually been seeing someone on the side, would that have made it OK for him to kill her? In Shakespeare's play, stakes are high. Not so in "O"--and when the inevitable carnage ensues, there's just not enough dramatic weight to justify it, let alone make it remotely plausible. (The lone exception is the emphasis on the faltering relationship between Hugo and his estranged father, which provides the impetus for Hugo's treachery. There, significant parallels do apply.) Besides, if we've learned anything from Columbine, it's that jocks such as Odin rule--but don't often shoot up--the school.