December 26, 2017
O (2001)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Stars: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles

What it's about. A version of Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello". The setting is moved to a private prep school basketball team seeming destined for a state title. The team's star is Mekhi Phifer, and he is also the school's sole black student. As Phifer's star rises, it provokes the jealousy of Hugo (Josh Hartnett), his less lauded teammate. Hugo is also the son of the stressed-out coach (Martin Sheen). Hugo launches a strange and complex scheme to ruin Phifer's life, a plot that involves alleged cheating between Phifer's hot blonde girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles) and another teammate, Michael (Andrew Keegan). Supporting players in the intrigue include Hugo's eccentric roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix) and nerdy outcast Roger (Elden Henson). Veteran actor John Heard has a small role as the school dean.

How others will see it. O had the bad luck to be released two weeks before 9-11. The film was not a box office success, but nonetheless made money due to a relatively low budget of 5M. O was also handicapped by its too-short name, its inevitably unhappy ending,, and its lack of a charismatic lead, although Mekhi Phifer has worked steadily since 1995.

O was mostly ignored by the award festival circuit, though it did win Best Director at the Seattle International Film Festival. Despite some interesting names in the cast (Julia Stiles, Martin Sheen, John Heard), the film has received little attention, with a humdrum user vote total of 18K at Given the youth of the starring roles, it isn't surprising that user ratings are highest (6.4 out of 10) among viewers under 30. Men over 45 grade it only 6.0.

User reviews tend to be positive, and focus on the "modern interpretation of Shakespeare" angle. There are a larger than expected number of harsh reviews, though, who criticize the plot, the grim ending, and everything else.

How I felt about it. The basketball scenes are surprisingly convincing. We like Martin Sheen in most any role, and Julia Stiles is as gorgeous and desirable as she is intended to be. The biggest problem is the motivation of the film's villain, Hugo. If he dislikes Phifer, so be it, but why commit two murders, and also ruin the life of Roger? Also, why should Roger and Phifer follow Hugo's plan? Not only is it wrong, misguided, and evil, it is almost certain to fail. And it doesn't help Hugo, whose hard work in getting the team to the state finals has now come to naught.

Perhaps much of the criticism comes from too close an adaptation of the source play to the present. Hugo's plan should be to scandalize Phifer after the team has won the state title. Perhaps the subplot of Hugo getting steroid injections, which seems out of place, makes a better fit if Hugo's plan was to reveal that Phifer's success on the basketball court was due to illegal steroids.

Despite its problems of plot and character, the film is much better than expected. This, despite the directorial inexperience of Tim Blake Nelson. The writer Brad Kaaya had an equally uninspiring resumé, namely, less than a dozen episodes total of various television series. Thus, we are unable to fully explain why the movie is nearly very good.

But I did like the scene where hapless Roger is tormented by the jocks situated behind him at an event. It seemed just like something the "cool kids" would do to an outsider who dared sit in a place where he wasn't "supposed" to. Also, Josh Hartnett is a good (and highly successful) actor who made the best of his role.

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