The controversial "O" (IMDb listing) finally makes its way into theaters after a two-year delay. And what's the easiest way to spot this delay? By looking at star Josh Hartnett's hair. Though he finally was forced to run a comb through his stiff mane for "Pearl Harbor," "O" takes us back to the actor's less promising beginnings when he featured his bizarre bowl-style, Moe Howard haircut in about five or six movies straight. There is no better metaphor for the growth of Hartnett's acting than his hair, and "O" is a wonderful reminder just how dreadful an actor Hartnett was just a little while ago.
Based on the William Shakespeare play "Othello," "O" reinvents the story, this time setting the tale at a high school deep in South Carolina. Odin James (Mekhi Phifer, "Clockers") is a gifted, African-American basketball player who is the star of the team, and also holds the heart of an innocent young student named Desi (Julia Stiles). Lurking in the background is Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), another ball player who has become insanely jealous of Odin for stealing the affection of his basketball-coach father (Martin Sheen) and the hearts of their fellow students. Employing a lovesick loser (Elden Henson, "The Mighty") to carry out his destructive deeds, Hugo hatches a plan to ruin Odin's popularity and love affair.
"O" was directed by Tim Blake Nelson, best known recently as the dim-witted Delmar from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?." Nelson, an accomplished, instinctual actor and playwright, brings his love for the melodramatic to "O." The film is played very heavy-handedly. It takes itself seriously and creates a rather somber mooda mood that is almost sacrilegious for a film about teenagers. Typical for a picture that is this convicted, Nelson is let down by the appalling screenplay and differing temperatures of the performances.
Written by Brad Kaaya, "O" rustles up some provocative issues of race (Odin is the only black student in a seemingly all-white school), friendship, and sex. Yet, whenever it takes the time and passion to bring these topics up, Nelson and Kaaya do almost nothing to investigate them. The bumbling attempts at theatrically detailing the pain of these characters ruins the very real issues they face. The best example is a scene involving Odin's lashing out at his fellow students during a slam dunk contest. Odin huffs and puffs to the crowd, eyes wide open with hatred and betrayal. Yet nothing is accomplished by the scene. The audience goes no further into Odin's pain, and the scene (and many others like it) is howlingly ridiculous. It is representative of Nelson's overindulgence of the actors and over compensation for the drab script.
While Phifer and Stiles muster some semblance of character out of the scraps they are given, it is Hartnett in the critical role of Hugo that is the weak link of the cast. An always subdued actor, Hartnett plays Hugo too peacefully. For a role that requires the planning and execution of mass murder, Hartnett looks as though he could care less. Since "O" was made such a long time ago, it's encouraging to see that Hartnett has made the baby steps to being a better actor. Still, considering Kenneth Branagh knocked this role out of the park in the last adaptation of this play, Oliver Parker's 1995 "Othello," Hartnett's interpretation is lifeless and inconsistent with Hugo's evil ways. Had there been fire and brimstone in place of mild displeasure on Hartnett's behalf, "O" would have been considerably more memorable.
Holding up the release of "O" for so long was the climax of the picture, which features the high school student characters killing each other. The Columbine massacre made Disney (the previous owners of the film) nervous and they dropped the film after toying with it for so long. In the hands of new distributor Lions Gate, no cuts have been made and the film has been released intact with the homicidal climax. The conclusion of "O" shares little resemblance to any high school tragedies that the distributors have been so worried about mirroring. The ending comes from the tension of the fictional story, not out of universal high school themes of neglect or peer pressure. Considering just how melodramatic and juvenile the rest of the picture plays, I am a little disappointed that so much was made out of so little.
Filmfodder Grade: D