Film reviews and more since 2009

O (2001) review

Dir. Tim Blake Nelson

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Tim Blake Nelson’s O brings William Shakespeare’s Othello to a modern high school setting. It trades Venice and the backdrop of a Turks invasion for a posh high school and its basketball court. Its main character is Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), a promising hooper who is dating Desi (Julia Stiles), a lovely and faithful girl. Odin is the jealous type, though, so much so that he confides in his supposed friend, Hugo (Josh Hartnett). Instead of quelling his nerves, Hugo suggests that Desi is secretly sleeping with another student named Michael (Andrew Keegan). The smoking gun turns out to be a scarf, a family heirloom of sorts for Odin.

Hugo (Iago) has his own set of problems despite crafting a series of others for his peers. His dad is the school’s basketball coach (Martin Sheen). In such a situation, dad has two options: play favorites and give his son ample opportunity to be in the starting five, or be so hard on him that his confidence is eviscerated. He choses the latter, and tells Odin he loves him like a son within earshot of Hugo.

Hugo’s move to trigger jealousy in Odin by planting the seeds of Desi’s nonexistent infidelity isn’t because Hugo wants her for himself. He simply wants to see Odin flame out both on the court and off it.

Tim Blake Nelson’s O modernizes Shakespeare’s play to better effect than Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which retained its source’s dialog despite opting to have its characters play with guns and rock designer clothing. Screenwriter Brad Kaaya, Sr. has no interest in having these individuals recite archaic dialog. Instead, he uses Othello as the template for a gripping high school drama revolving around characters motivated by greed, ego, lust, jealousy, temptation, and deceit. It’s hard to combine all of those elements and emerge with a lackluster movie.

Nelson’s film was completed in 1999, but collected dust in the can until the dog days of summer 2001, when it finally saw a release. A combination of factors including the Columbine High School massacre and (perhaps?) the 2000 presidential election played a role in Dimension Films’ decision to hold it before selling it to Lionsgate for distribution. Nelson would later write about the experience of filming O and subsequently waiting an eternity until it was finally released: “there’s a price you pay for getting too real: delay,” he wrote.

Mekhi Phifer is a strong lead, playing both sides of his cocksure demeanor on the basketball court in contrast with his shy and conflicted behavior in the halls of his high school extremely well. In the final moments of the film, he delivers a resonant and painful monologue about being the victim of Hugo’s abhorrent game. Listen intently and you’re likely to hear the voice of Kaaya, Sr, who undoubtedly touches on some of his personal struggles of once existing as a Black student in an affluent, white high school. Josh Hartnett also shines as a cunning and manipulative cad with sociopathic tendencies. Also, Julia Stiles gives a modern take on the Desdemona role with strong emotional resonance as she watches the man she loves and to whom she’s faithful become plagued by distrust and suspicion.

Like the three central performances, Kaaya Sr’s narrative circumvents into a climax where all loose-ends are tied and the plots converge into a riveting climax. You love to see a film that wraps around as seamlessly as this one.

Who knows what Shakespeare himself would think of the impact his plays have had many centuries later, or what kind of opinion he’d have on other visionaries taking the template and themes of his stories and reworking them to fit modern contexts. Those mysteries aside, I think he’d be a fan of Nelson’s O, a sly and smart film that would be better served in the high school English curriculum than Luhrmann’s film.

NOTE: As of this writing, is available to stream on Max.

NOTE II: Take a listen to my interview with Tim Blake Nelson, where we discuss his latest movie, Asleep in My Palm, his many performances, and more:

Starring: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Martin Sheen, Elden Henson, Andrew Keegan, and Rain Phoenix. Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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