"O" is the "Othello" story told, or retold, as a high-school tragedy. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson from a script by Brad Kaaya, the film has a back story of its own. It was actually finished two years ago, just before the Columbine massacre; but Miramax, which was distributing it, bowed out on the premise that it was too close to that real tragedy. It was recently picked up by Lions Gate, which has now released it nationally.
In "O" the central figure is Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), called 'O,' a black basketball star for an otherwise all-white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. He and the dean's daughter Desi (Julia Stiles) are lovers, but the evil figure of Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who happens to be the coach's son, is jealous to a degree that only Shakespeare could justify. The film, like the play, follows the proud but insecure Odin to a tragic end.
Without question Nelson, whose second film this is, is a wonderfully talented director. His ability to get meaning out of even tawdry lines, his lighting and framing of shots, his ability to move his actors in and around and through all their machinations, is as good as that of anyone working today. But he has been given a script that is Shakespeare stripped of its genius, lacking the poetry, missing the fiery love and great hubris of what we have to call the real Othello. Let us remember that Othello was the general, the great hired gun, who saved Venice when all was thought to be lost.
Here, though everyone in the film speaks of Odin as a special talent, what we see is a late adolescent (Phifer actually looks to be in his twenties) being led like a lamb to the slaughter by his psychopathic friend Hugo. Like "Othello," the villain here does not explain his jealousy. But unlike the play, these are not adults with believable conflicts. We are given a choice of explanations for Hugo's acts: he is mad because he's only the sixth man on his dad's team; or he's motivated by race hatred. Neither one, though, is pursued in the film.
All the actors do well. Nelson never lingers unnecessarily over what might be melodramatic moments, yet gives his people room to be and live their characters. Stiles, who has played this part before ("Save the Last Dance") and who was so good in "Ten Things I Hate About You," is excellent. Hartnett, in an impossible role, does his best but comes off as merely wacko. Rain Phoenix, as Emily, the bearer of the unlucky scarf that will seal the fate of everyone, is also fine. But nothing can save the film from a script that has all the right things in it but one: genius.