Bad Movies We Love: O


Ralph Fiennes's sweeping Coriolanus arrives this weekend. See that shit. Fiennes whips up a batch of thundering personal conflict, the kind that made Quiz Show so awesome, and Vanessa Redgrave gives a supporting performance far worthier of an Oscar than her work in Julia. She is angst and fury. She's like Coriolanus Morissette up there. But if Shakespearean seriousness isn't your thing, please circle back to 2001 when Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett served up a Shakespearean telenovela in O, based on Othello. Hope you like hip-hop, opera and Josh Hartnett's "evil" face, because this movie is a green-eyed monster that's trying so hard not to be funny.


Famously, O was filmed in 1999 but not released until 2001; the Columbine shootings made high school violence an unsavory topic for a couple years. Fact is, we could've used the chuckle that O provides. It is such an unyielding, self-serious melodrama that I deemed it appropriate to laugh randomly as the scenes progressed. It's like reading a high school sophomore's handwritten summary of Othello, one he wrote while listening to his favorite 2Pac album and doing his darnedest not to transcribe some of the lyrics on accident. In this retelling, Othello is a star basketball player named Odin or "O" (Mekhi Phifer), the only black student at his southern high school. He loves his girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles), but his envious teammate Hugo (Josh Hartnett) starts to manipulate him into believing she's duplicitous. You know Othello. Jealousy takes over, O loses control, and the story ends in tragedy. Fine, great. But the torrid basketballing has to be seen to be believed.

Like all Bad Movies We Love, O breaks down into five lovable attributes. Let's count 'em down like hip-hop moves in Julia Stiles's repertoire.

5. Martin Sheen loves Odin like a son, but not like his horrible son Hugo.

Martin Sheen, one of our best presidents, plays a bulldog basketball coach who thinks O will lead the team to its 20th state victory. During an assembly he proclaims, "I'm not ashamed to say I love him like a son!" Now, that's weird, because Martin Sheen has another son in this movie, and it's the nefarious Hugo --- who plays on the fucking team. That slight really gets Hugo riled and scheme-y! Here, we see some of the merciless grit that marks Sheen's performance. We also see John Heard (AKA Macaulay Culkin's father in Home Alone) fight with his daughter about her personal affairs.

4. Modern-day Shakespearean translations are sometimes... dumb.

Othello is filled with literary iconography: the "green-eyed monster," Othello's c-section scar, Desdemona's dropped handkerchief. Sinister stuff. Too bad O proves that these items can seem awfully dull when revived in a moody hip-hopera. If the names "Odin" (for Othello), "Desi" (for Desdemona), and "Hugo" (for Iago) didn't feel like Malt-O-Meal versions of the real things, check out other dubious updates: The "monster" lurking over the proceedings is a hawk that acts as the school mascot, and a major scene in which Othello overhears Iago's manipulated conversation about Desdemona's alleged wrongdoings is played here like an average episode of I Love Lucy's mistaken identities -- and with no studio audience to provide the right guffaws.

3. O cordially welcomes you to the space jam.

Yes, O is an Othello retelling, but it doubles as an unofficial Space Jam sequel too. Here, Odin's crazed energy culminates in a massive slam dunk that ruins a backboard. This is a man who's ready to do something really serious -- like star in a Gatorade commercial or befuddle Wayne Knight.

2. Julia Stiles as you've never seen her before: emoting

Loved her on Dexter, loathed her onstage in David Mamet's Oleanna, and on the big screen, I find that Julia Stiles is often -- uninspired? Or just aloof? In O, the 10 Things I Hate About You's titular hater surprises us all with a fresh, even harrowing performance. In one partially disturbing (but mostly over-the-top) scene, Othello's rising rage and suspicions bubble over in a sexual assault. She looks pained here. Not to defend Odin, but the floating image of Andrew Keegan in flagrante delicto might inspire me to do sex a little faster too. Likely for a very different reason.

1. Josh Hartnett, super-villain

The most lame/fantastic parts of O belong to the man who spooked us in Halloween H20, glowered at us in The Virgin Suicides, and shocked us with samurai-western credibility in Bunraku: Gen Y figurehead Josh Hartnett. It's just inconceivable that a man as doe-eyed and baggy-sweatered as Hartnett would be so jealous of a teammate that he'd drive him to suicide. It's even more inconceivable that he'd spout the following dialogue to Odin: "LIsten, I know you grew up in the hood, so you've seen a lot of hustlers, but the one thing I do know better than you is white girls." That was real. Hartnett can't handle the profound villainy of Iago or the slangy dialogue of O, so there's no telling why he was cast here. All I know is I love that Iago's most damning trait is his adorableness; it makes his lines like, "The point is, I'm the MVP on this piece of shit team!" seem cute -- and true. You are the MVP, Mr. Hartnett. Even though your performance here makes Ryan Philippe's in Cruel Intentions seem like dramatic masterwork.

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  • sam says:

    In the sex scene, is she exclaiming "OH!", or saying his name, "O!" ?
    Even the main character looks perplexed, like he wants to shout "Yeah! Say my name, girl!", but isn't sure if it's appropriate.