Sometimes these updates of Shakespeare’s plays work well, whether they junk the text (10 Things I Hate About You) or stick with the iambic pentameter (Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet). This is not one of those times. O, a modern spin on Othello, is a bumpy ride that is nonetheless worth taking. Set in a Southern prep school, the film shows the tragic consequences that occur when basketball champ Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) – no, they don’t call him O.J. – falls hard for Desi (Julia Stiles), the dean’s daughter. It’s not their interracial romance that makes waves in this all-white school, it’s the jealousy awakened in Odin by his court “bro” Hugo (Josh Hartnett). Hugo thinks his dad, Coach Duke (a hammy Martin Sheen), likes Odin better then he does his own son.
Phifer and Stiles put real heat into their performances. Hartnett, who survived the debacle of Pearl Harbor, is less successful in wrestling with his role as a modern-day Iago.” Despite a colloquial script by Brad Kaaya, O relies on plot mechanics from the Bard that make no sense in a contemporary context. Nor does it help that director Tim Blake Nelson lays on a heavy hand that you don’t see in his work as an actor (he played the spaciest convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The film ends with a climactic shootout that litters the campus with bodies. Nelson doesn’t overplay the shootings, but O has sat on a shelf for two years because Miramax, the film’s original distributor, feared releasing a kids-with-guns film in a post-Columbine climate. Now, with Lions Gate stepping in for Miramax, O – flaws and all – has a chance to find an audience willing to engage the film on its own provocative terms. It’s about time.)