Tragedy is rarely done in American cinema. If we’re not doing comedy, we do drama with a happy Hollywood ending. That’s unfortunate because many of the great stories about the human condition are tragedies. From Homer to Shakespeare, tragedy speaks to us as much as comedy. So let’s not shy away from it because it’s not pleasant. It’s one of civilization’s great art forms and worth listening to.
R for sex, violence
O is the newest version of Othello from director Tim Blake Nelson (who played Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Othello is Shakespeare’s play about a Moor in a Venetian court. Nelson’s version is set on a basketball court, in a North Carolina high school.
Mekhi Phifer plays Odin (or O as his friends and fans call him). Life is sweet. O just won the MVP as a sophomore, and he’s got the love of a beautiful girl, Desi (Julia Stiles). He’s on top of the world, soaring above it in fact, like a hawk.
Enter Hugo (Josh Hartnett), the coach’s son, a talented player in his own right. He’s what they call a utility man, a player who can play offense or defense, a well-rounded contrast to the flashy point-scorer Odin.
Hugo is jealous of Odin both on and off the court. Not only is Odin the MVP instead of Hugo, but the man responsible for getting Odin the trophy is Hugo’s own father (Martin Sheen), who says he loves O as though he were his own son.
Hugo manipulates O, Desi and other friends to bring about O’s destruction.
Close But No Swish
The movie does not shy away from its tragic roots, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend this movie, but only just. Pressed to find other praiseworthy qualities of O, I find more mediocrity than brilliance.
There are good performances from Phifer, Hartnett and up-and-comer Stiles. But nobody stood out. Nobody sucked me in. Knowing the story was from Shakespeare makes the elaborate plot and exaggerated emotions more palatable. But this same complexity binds the actors. Shakespeare didn’tt write movies (contrary to what one character asserts in an English class). Instead he wrote for intimate audiences who would stick around for more than 90 minutes. Something is inevitably lost in the adaptation.
The filmmaking feels unfinished as well. Nelson and editor Kate Sanford cut to shots of vine-draped trees between sequences. If there was a metaphor, it was too subtle to work visually. Then again, the cutaways may have served merely to mask jumps in time and place, which seems more likely.
O was completed two years ago. It was held from American theaters because the Columbine attack had just happened. The distributor didn’t think we were ready for a tragedy about high schoolers plotting to kill one another. Now O suffers from another sense of bad timing. Another tragedy has hit America, and judging from the size of my audience, we are not interested in more tragedy.
That’s too bad. Tragedy in art is good for the soul. It’s a reminder that life is not completely under our control. Humans have a dark side that is worthy of exploration in healthy forms of expression.