O, what a squandered opportunity! A movie that lov’d its source not wisely but too well.
There are some who reflexively scoff at the very notion of O, appalled by its chutzpah—who would dare to retell one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies as a (shudder) Teen Movie?
I have never shared those feelings. I think it’s a brilliant idea. Othello as the black star player on an all-white high school basketball team? Deception and jealousy played out with the palette of volatile teenage emotions? Scenes of gun-toting students so scandalous that Miramax refused to release it? Bring it on!
So I came to the movie with a keen anticipation. Over the next hour and a half, that keenness was dulled, as I realized that it was exactly the movie its detractors were expecting.
First of all, I don’t know who this Shakespeare guy is, but he’s got to learn to write better. No, just kidding, ha ha.
But seriously, I don’t know who this Brad Kaaya guy is, but he’s got to learn to write better. He can’t take credit for the plotting, which is an incredibly direct lift from the original. Even the stolen handkerchief routine remains intact, an antiquated custom which makes for an awkward update. The only real alteration I could detect was to the Duke of Venice/Coach Duke Goulding, making him Iago/Hugo’s father—but more on this dubious choice later. The bottom line is, Kaaya’s “retelling” is such a one-to-one plot map that the only fair way to judge his work is through his dialogue and characterizations. And in general, they blow. Everything there is to know about every character is completely on the surface. Some of the tritest dialogue this side of TITANIC. I wish they had just worn T-shirts listing their incredibly simplistic motives, and pantomimed the rest.
Luckily, there’s director Tim Blake Nelson to save the day, right? Right? Alas, no. Despite the fact that he was probably the quirkiest actor starring in that other “O” movie, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, his direction is anything but quirky. In fact, O’s homogenized aesthetic is downright Teen Horror Movie.
(Yes, yes, I know part of the premise of the movie is its all-white private school setting. But I don’t know if I can take many more movies populated only by rich white teenagers. Oh, oops, I’m forgetting about the only other notable black character—a drug dealer, wouldn’tcha know.)
Nelson tries valiantly to inject the movie with a few moments of High Art. There is continuous over-extended symbolism involving a black hawk flying (the mascot of the school team, the “Hawks”)—soft-focus, slow-motion—among flocks of cooing white doves. At one point Hugo traps the black hawk and keeps it in a cage. Admittedly, compelling symbolism... if you happen to be in eighth grade English class and you’ve never heard of symbolism before.
The actors fare comparably. One of the dangers of having youngsters play Shakespeare is their lack of maturity. This is why all of the best Hamlets are in their thirties. These actors are in their teens—or at least, I’ll pretend they are so I can respect them more.
Mekhi Phifer’s Odin is fine but unextraordinary. I found his transformation from nice-guy solid citizen to jealous murderer completely unbelievable, but at least that’s the standard trouble that Othello actors have with the role. I bet he could do justice to it in another 10 or 20 years. Julia Stiles has the most refreshingly original take, playing Desi as an in-control, don’t-take-shit modern girl who is tempered by a lack of practical experience. Unfortunately, she and Phifer are unable to muster any believable chemistry. Odin and Desi seem to be in love only because they have decided to be in love.
And Josh Hartnett... ah, poor, poor Josh Hartnett, in over his head. An actor not without charm, but certainly without the understanding necessary to play Iago. Many of Shakespeare’s villains are devilishly ambitious; but it remains one of literature’s most intriguing mysteries why Iago goes to such trouble to be so stylishly ambitious. Hartnett’s Hugo makes one wonder whether the stylishness was accidental.
Iago is Shakespeare’s most famous, most despicable, cleverest villain. At various points Iago directs, writes, and takes part in the action. Hugo, in contrast, is a dull crybaby who just wants to be loved by his daddy. It’s a rare moment when his eyes aren’t moist, and the result seems not so much evil as merely pathetic. To be fair to Hartnett, he was probably following Nelson’s direction. Plus he was saddled with Kaaya’s distressingly on-the-nose monologues. But come on, Josh! Iago’s the star! He relishes his power plays! He is unrepentantly nasty! He’s fun! He’s sexy! He is most certainly not a dew-eyed fop.
Much of the problem stems from the conceit that the spittle-spewing team coach (Sheen) is also Hugo’s emotionally unresponsive dad. Perhaps this is an attempt to give Hugo/Iago some moral justification. But it really sheds no new light on the matter; it just spells Hugo’s motivations out, again and again and again. (Hugo addressing empty space: “Why can’t you love me, father?”)
It’s a real shame that the shared vision of Kaaya, Nelson, and the rest had to be so damned literal. There was great opportunity here to rediscover “Othello” through the surprising lens of youth. One moment succeeded on that level, a scene of teenage sex gone wrong set to Outkast’s “Aquemini”. Would that the other 90 minutes had matched those three.
Still, I got the impression that Kaaya, Nelson, and the rest were earnestly trying to decode Othello for the masses. Somberly, blandly, but earnestly. In a way, they were successful. O is not so far removed from that epitome of easily digestible morality plays: the ABC After-School Special.