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The Direct Approach


Overheated passions. Malicious gossip. Jealousy, betrayal and constant romantic crises. Shakespeare's "Othello" fits so snugly into the social context of a modern American high school that a film that restages the Moor's tragedy among 18-year-olds and their raging hormones was all but inevitable.

"O," as this creditable modern "Othello" is called, is the latest and one of the more intriguing products of Hollywood's kid-lit craze, where everything from "Taming of the Shrew" ("10 Things I Hate About You") to Jane Austen's "Emma" ("Clueless") to "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" ("Cruel Intentions") has been restaged among the pre-college set. (Rumors that Henry James' "The Princess Casamassima" is going to get a similar treatment are probably a bit premature, but you never know.)

"O" also proved to be controversial before anyone got to see it. It was still in production when the 1999 rampage at Colorado's Columbine High School took place, and though the on-screen violence is in line with what Shakespeare mandated, that was apparently enough to give Miramax, the film's original distributors, second thoughts. Which is ironic, because "O" is weakest when it's trying to be relevant, trying to deal with contemporary themes such as teenage sex and violence and interracial dating. That attempt tends to accentuate the film's weakness, its tendency toward broad stroke, overly earnest melodrama.

"O's" strength is the power of Shakespeare's plot. Even shorn of the elevating original language, it's fascinating to see "Othello's" dynamics being worked out in another environment, to notice the equivalents the film has come up with for the original's plot elements. No one was aware of these possibilities more than director Tim Blake Nelson, who had his cast rehearse "Othello" as part of their pre-production process.

Also helping "O" is how well-cast it is. "Clockers"' Mekhi Phifer reaches suitable levels of rage as star athlete Odin James and the protean Julia Stiles is an appropriately aggrieved innocent as his girlfriend Desi Brable, but the high point is Hugo, the Iago figure excellently played by "Pearl Harbor's" Josh Hartnett.

Screenwriter Brad Kaaya had the idea of not only placing "O" in the setting of high school athletics but also picking basketball as the sport in question. This intense, aggressive, visibly in-your-face game is a good fit for the story's psychological dynamics.

Odin James is the charismatic star of genteel Palmetto Grove Academy's prep basketball team, the guy who can be counted on to make those last-second baskets. He not only has the love of the beautiful Desi, but the respect of his coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen), who is given to publicly saying, "I love him like my own son."

This doesn't sit well with Goulding's biological son Hugo. A utility player who has turned to steroids to pump up his body, Hugo doesn't feel he's getting the respect he deserves from either his father or his teammates. Though he's nominally Odin's best friend, he decides to manipulate the situation and destroy O's connection with Desi. Using Desi's roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix) and his teammate Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan) as his pawns, this erstwhile friend plants evil seeds and gloats as they grow.

Director Nelson is also an experienced actor (he was the especially gullible escapee Delmar in the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), and he elicits strong performances from his young cast, but his directing style tends to verge toward billboarding emotions. Though it runs out of steam before the finish and pushes scenes too hard along the way, his "O" does understand and successfully trade on the undeniable power of its celebrated innocence-destroyed plotline.

Essential to the success it manages is Hartnett's low-key, charismatic performance--cool, withholding, compelling. The triumph of his insinuating Hugo/Iago is how plausible he is, how he manages to convincingly inject poison in so many minds without seeming to be trying. Hints notwithstanding, we are, as in the play, not finally told why Hugo does what he does, and it is a measure of the strength of Hartnett's work that he makes us believe even that.

MPAA rating: R, for violence, a scene of strong sexuality, language and drug use. Times guidelines: The violence and sexuality are relatively brief but very vivid.


Mekhi Phifer: Odin James

Josh Hartnett: Hugo Goulding

Julia Stiles: Desi Brable

Martin Sheen: Coach Duke Goulding

Andrew Keegan: Michael Casio

Elden Henson: Roger Rodriguez

Rain Phoenix: Emily

Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Tim Blake Nelson. Producers Eric Gitter, Anthony Ruhlen, Daniel L. Fried. Executive producers Michael I. Levy & William Shively. Screenplay Brad Kaaya. Cinematographer Russell Lee Fine. Editor Kate Sanford. Music Jeff Danna. Production design Dina Goldman. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

In general release.

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