The most prolific screenwriter of our time is back with another of his patented emotionally charged explorations of teenage angst. Plundering his own previous works (and no doubt adding another wing to his Malibu mansion in the process) the much-in-demand William Shakespeare blends the star-crossed lovers of 1996’s Romeo + Juliet with the high school caste system of 1999’s Ten Things I Hate About You (known in pre-production as The Taming of the Shrew) in his latest effort, titled simply O.
O stands for Odin, as in Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), basketball star and sole black student at an elite prep school for the children of privilege, including the coach’s son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) and the dean’s daughter Desi (Julia Stiles). Hugo, also on the basketball team, is envious of Odin’s MVP status and the high regard in which Hugo’s dad, Coach Duke Goulding (a bellowing, red-faced Martin Sheen), holds him. Further complicating matters is Odin’s romantic relationship with Desi, which meets with the disapproval of Dean Brable (John Heard) as well as Hugo’s roommate Roger, secretly in love with Desi.
Hugo sets a complicated revenge scheme into motion by planting seeds of doubt in Odin’s mind as to Desi’s fidelity. When another basketball teammate, Michael, is benched after an off-campus altercation, Hugo convinces him that the best way to get back in the game is by cozying up to Desi and getting her to persuade Odin to plead his case with the coach. Hugo makes sure Odin witnesses Michael and Desi palling around, then arranges for a special gift from Odin to find its way out of Desi’s dresser and into Michael’s hands. The emotional turmoil comes to a head the night of the big game, as Hugo orchestrates a series of deadly rendezvous.
Shakespeare receives only a story credit this time around (his version was entitled Othello), leaving the scripting duties to Brad Kaaya. Kaaya eliminates the baroque Shakespearean language familiar from Romeo + Juliet and last year’s Hamlet, opting instead for colloquial American English; all the thous and thees have become dogs and G’s. Director Tim Blake Nelson, best known for his slack-jawed yokel role in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, supplies slick camera moves and slathers on the rap music with a trowel, but fails to integrate the contemporary characters with Shakespeare’s old school plotting. Phifer and Stiles strike sparks in their early scenes, which boast an intimacy and casualness unrivaled in the admittedly meager history of interracial screen romances. But later in the film, after Odin’s suspicions have been roused, the two are saddled with overwrought dialogue and far-fetched actions that would defeat even the most seasoned performers. And outside the bedroom, Desi exists only as a plot point, possessing not even one distinguishing characteristic or reason for us to care about her. The same goes for pretty much everyone else in O; from the dean to the hapless Roger to Hugo’s girlfriend Emily, they’re only given the minimal screen time necessary to serve their functions in the story. As for Hugo, it’s hard to buy him as a master manipulator when all it would take to rip the lid off his machinations would be any two other characters chatting for more than thirty seconds.
O was originally scheduled for release by Miramax over a year ago, then shelved after an outbreak of school shootings and eventually picked up by Lion’s Gate for distribution. But any parallel between those real life tragedies and the contrived histrionics on the screen is strictly in the minds of squeamish executives and the self-appointed moral guardians of our society. This story is pure melodramatic fantasy – it might as well take place in 16th century Venice. That adolescence is a turbulent time even under the best conditions is hardly breaking news. Perhaps the time has come for Mr. Shakespeare to graduate from high school and apply his undeniable gifts to the larger world..