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Movie Review

In Dante’s imagining of hell, the harshest damnation was reserved for people who betrayed friends. History has seen its share of them. But in all of classic literature, few villains have displayed the ruthless cunning and amoral deceit of Iago in William Shakespeare’s Othello. Aspiring to personal heights by climbing the broken backs of easily manipulated peers, Iago is both a despicable and pathetic character—one easily adapted into an angst-ridden 21st-century high school student whose malicious scheming devastates an entire community in O.

O parallels Othello at every turn with set-ups and relationships modeled after the Bard’s timeless tragedy, but in a context modern audiences can identify with. Instead of boasting military prowess, the African-American icon in this clever retelling of Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy and racial tension happens to be a black basketball star on a lily-white prep school team. Odin is a champion, a local hero and the apple of Coach Goulding’s eye. Trouble is, the coach’s son, Hugo, is also on the squad and begins to resent Odin’s status, but even more so objects to the phenom’s partiality for another teammate, Michael, as his go-to guy. Something must be done. And it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in the process. One pawn in Hugo’s strategic plan to rise above his current status is Desi, the dean’s daughter. She and Odin have begun a controversial interracial romance. If Hugo can plant seeds of jealousy in Odin by having him believe that Michael and Desi are carrying on behind his back, it could disrupt the current hierarchy. Hugo enlists the services of his rich-kid roommate, Roger (a picked-upon dupe who has a crush on Desi) to help him sow discord. It works. Odin’s jealousy grows. However, Hugo’s lies and homicidal plotting set in motion a series of events that eventually careens out of control, leading to a Scream-sized body count in the film’s final 20 minutes.

positive elements: As a result of the tale’s tragic outcome, viewers get a lesson in the destructive nature of jealousy, deception, pride, romantic obsession, misplaced trust and too much alcohol. Odin and Desi discuss the racial double-standard surrounding the use of the n-word.

sexual content: There’s dialogue, slang, innuendo and activity. Roger watches as Odin and Desi freak dance ("When people are breaking up, they don’t grind. They’re grinding," he observes). It is suggested that Odin and Desi have been sleeping together ("Half the time he doesn’t even want to do anything. He just lays naked with me," Desi says). Hugo and his girlfriend Emily lay on his bed, kissing passionately before the scene cuts away (sex is implied). Michael talks frankly about Brandi’s promiscuity and how the couple had sex in the school library. But the most explicit scene finds Odin and Desi going at it hot and heavy. Careful editing avoids any breast or rear nudity, but body movement, orgasmic cries and facial reactions leave very little to the imagination. In Othello, the couple is married; here they’re dating, making the sexual content seem all the more inappropriate.

violent content: Coach Goulding is hot-tempered and combustible on the sideline. During a slam-dunk contest, Odin lets rage get the better of him (he smashes a backboard, shoves a ball boy and alienates the crowd with ugly posturing). Odin beats up Roger for telling lies against him. Roger and Michael get into a brawl at a party (Roger is bloodied). Michael and another boy taunt Roger, inspiring the persecuted teen to accept Hugo’s plan to ambush and murder Michael. As Hugo describes the plot, viewers see it transpiring as intended with Roger shooting Michael and making it look like suicide. During the actual ambush, Hugo attacks Michael with a crowbar and Roger shoots him in the leg. In anger, Hugo shoots Emily dead. Odin strangles Desi. Roger and Odin both commit suicide by turning guns on themselves. In the aftermath of the violence, as Hugo is carted away by police in the final scene, the disturbed young man’s words echo those of actual school shooters: "One of these days everyone’s going to pay attention to me ...," creating an ominous image.

crude or profane language: Frequent with approximately 20 s-words, 55 f-words and a half-dozen blasphemous uses of God’s name.

drug and alcohol content: Beer is consumed at a party. Hugo and Michael drink hard liquor. Hugo is shown being injected with steroids. Odin accepts a free sample from a drug dealer in order to enhance his performance. Hugo offers a depressed Odin lines of cocaine, which the hoops star snorts and chases with alcohol.

other negative elements: Hugo advises Michael not to worry about his reputation, and to make up his own rules in life. Odin gives Desi a rubber-band ring as a symbol of his commitment, then tells her he doesn’t want to get married but suggests they "pretend for a while." Desi tells her father that her romantic involvement with Odin is none of his business (she’s in high school; who his daughter is dating is most definitely his business).

conclusion: O revisits Othello much the way Hollywood updated the similarly Machiavellian Dangerous Liaisons for teen audiences in 1999 in the form of Cruel Intentions. This film has many of the same problems, namely back stabbing, drug use, sexual immorality and obscene language. O was actually made at about the same time as Cruel Intentions, but sat on a shelf because studios felt it irresponsible to release the film in the immediate wake of the Columbine tragedy. It languished, leaving its creators to wonder if it would ever make it to theaters. Well, here it is. Despite being a faithful and interesting treatment of Shakespeare filled with decent performances, one has to wonder what good will come from it, and whether it should have stayed on the shelf.

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Mekhi Phifer as Odin James [Othello]; Josh Hartnett as Hugo Goulding [Iago]; Julia Stiles as Desi Brable [Desdimona]; Andrew Keegan as Michael Casio [Casio]; Elden Henson as Roger Rodriguez [Roderigo]; Rain Phoenix as Emily; John Heard as Dean Brable; Martin Sheen as Coach Duke Goulding; Anthony Johnson as Dell; Rachel Shumate as Brandi


Tim Blake Nelson ( )





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Bob Smithouser

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