[Screen It]

(2001) (Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett) (R)

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Drama: Jealous of the attention a teammate receives from his father and others, a high school student sets out to ruin the teen's life through an elaborate plan of lies and deception.
Odin James (MEKHI PHIFER) is the star basketball player of Palmetto Grove Academy, and the only black student there. Accordingly, his coach, Duke Goulding (MARTIN SHEEN), has asked Hugo (JOSH HARTNETT), his son and Odin's teammate, to watch out for him. This doesn't sit well with Hugo as the young man is envious of most everything Odin has - talent, popularity and the love of Desi Brable (JULIA STILES), the daughter of Palmetto Grove's Dean, Bob Brable (JOHN HEARD), who's unaware of their interracial relationship.

Accordingly and since he's been appointed as Odin's confidant by his father, Hugo easily devises and then sets into motion a devious plan designed to undermine his teammate. Acting like he's his best friend, Hugo plants doubts in Odin's mind about Desi's faithfulness to him, suggesting that she might secretly be seeing Michael Casio (ANDREW KEEGAN), another teammate and Odin's designated wingman.

As the plan begins to unfold and he involves both his constantly picked on roommate, Roger (ELDEN HENSON) who's sweet on Desi, and his own unwitting girlfriend Emily (RAIN PHOENIX), who's Desi's roommate, into his devious scheme, Hugo continues in his effort to knock Odin from his pedestal by driving him to the point of dangerous madness and despair.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
From the time that other cavemen noticed that Og had the best cave, club and cavewoman, and the ladies observed that she had the best mastodon pelt, rock collection and, of course, Og, people have been envious of others for who they are and what they possess.

Most of us have experienced such feelings before - whether it's feeling that way about the most popular kid in school, the coworker who received the promotion and raise, or Bill Gates for having anything and everything the heart, and wallet, could imagine. Since such feelings are pretty much universal, they're obviously great fodder for both comedic and dramatic works.

Shakespeare observed that and wrote one of his best works on that very subject, and now the Bard's "Othello" has been adapted and updated once again, this time to a modern day high school setting in "O." Shot and originally scheduled for release several years ago, this tale of adolescent envy, betrayal and murder unfortunately ran into the tragic and highly publicized incidents that occurred at Columbine.

Probably fearing any sort of backlash for appearing either as insensitive or seemingly trying to capitalize on the incident - and certainly worried about copycat behavior - Dimension Films opted to shelve the project, hoping to distance themselves from the high school shootings.

Now, Lions Gate Films has acquired the rights to the film and is releasing it nationwide. For those concerned with any connection between real life and fiction, this film obviously doesn't glorify the violence that occurs within it, but instead shows the tragedy of it all.

Writer Brad Kaaya (marking his first produced script for a feature film) and director Tim Blake Nelson ("Eye of God") have obviously taken artistic liberties in adapting the story as various character details and attributes have been changed. That also holds true for the setting that's been moved from soldiers in Venice to basketball players at a Charleston, South Carolina private academy.

As was the case with other such teen-based adaptations of Shakespeare's work such as "10 Things I Hate About You," "Romeo + Juliet" and "Hamlet," the story feels, looks and sounds different, yet is nevertheless pretty much the same.

Those familiar with the original play won't have any difficulties identifying the characters or where the story is ultimately headed. In addition, the newly modified plot fits in perfectly with the teen setting as that's a time in one's life where such jealousy and envy are often at their peak. Accordingly, one probably won't feel that the Bard's work has been indelicately crammed into its new temporal digs.

What some may feel, however, is that the filmmakers have taken too much of a literal approach - beyond the necessary contemporary modifications - with the story and characters. At times and despite the profanity and basketball material, both feel a little too much like Shakespeare and not enough like a modern tale. Whether that's due to keeping most of the plot mechanisms in place - albeit modified - is debatable, but the film occasionally comes off more like an interesting academic project that a real, standalone film. That's not meant to imply that it's boring or trite, but instead that it feels just a tad artificial at times, especially in regards to the final mechanisms of the devious scheme as they play out at the end.

Beyond the basic story that's still as powerful today as it was back in the early 1600s and that could probably even withstand Pauly Shore, Carrot Top and Zsa Zsa Gabor in the three main parts - okay, maybe even the mighty couldn't survive that - it's the talented cast and their performances that make this version work and remain intriguing (some of which, however, will obviously stem from the film's delayed release and thus cause some viewers to wonder how they got the performers to look so much younger than in their more recent work).

Playing the part of Othello - now renamed Odin - is Mekhi Phifer ("Soul Food," "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") who delivers a credible take on the duped and progressively enraged character. Josh Hartnett ("Pearl Harbor," "The Virgin Suicides") gives his character - based on the original Iago - the needed intensity to make it work, although it often seems and sounds like he studied under and is trying to impersonate David "I Left NYPD Blue Too Soon" Caruso in such behavior.

Julia Stiles ("Save the Last Dance," "10 Things I Hate About You") makes up the third part of the tragic trio - playing the Desdemona character - and while good in the role, doesn't have as much to work with as her male counterparts. In supporting roles, Elden Henson ("She's All That," "The Mighty"), Andrew Keegan ("10 Things I Hate About You," "The Broken Hearts Club"), Rain Phoenix ("To Die For," "Maid to Order") and Martin Sheen ("Apocalypse Now Redux," TV's "The West Wing") are all good, although it would have been nice to see Sheen's role fleshed out and/or explored a bit more since it's much of the catalyst for what ultimately transpires.

Overall, this adaptation is competently made, with only a few minor (repeat shots of hawk-related material for symbolism) and major faults (the calculated feel of everything and lack of an original soul to the story) otherwise marring the production.

While Shakespearean purists may balk at his effort and the changes it's made, it's certainly a good stepping-stone for generating discussions about teen violence that it thankfully and smartly doesn't glorify. Not perfect and clearly offering few surprises, the story of envy and its disastrous effects nevertheless still manages to work after all of these years, and thus "O" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 13, 2001 / Posted August 31, 2001

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