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Shakespeare 'n' hoops

Review: 'O' overdone, but powerful


By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- If you think setting William Shakespeare's "Othello" in the world of high school basketball is a ridiculous idea, you may be slightly surprised by "O."

The Bard's story about a black military leader who falls in love and ignites a free-for-all of jealousy, treachery and murder has been grafted onto a garden- variety hoops picture by director Tim Blake Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya. The results pack a surprising amount of punch, and Nelson pulls some solid performances from his young cast, but you can't help feeling that the characters are caught up in much ado about nothing.

War and jealousy among the ruling class is one thing; an 18-year-old power forward beating and shooting his followers is quite another.

Mekhi Phifer stars as Odin James, the hotshot point guard at Palmetto Grove Academy, a private school in the deep South. Odin is the Academy's only African-American student, a fact that Nelson doesn't stress as much as he should.

The events are supposed to be at least partially inspired by racism, but they don't really play that way. One of Odin's best friends, Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), is a utility player on the team, and his dad (Martin Sheen, hamming it up) happens to be the coach.

Watch the trailer for the latest take on Shakespeare's Othello in 'O' (August 30)

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Hugo (like Shakespeare's Iago) loves to hate, and is secretly jealous of the more triumphant Odin. (He's especially peeved when his dad fawns all over Odin during an awards ceremony.) A natural master of psychology, Hugo decides to systematically ruin Odin's existence and inherit the spotlight.

But this is Shakespeare, so things don't go as planned. Before it's all over, teeth will be gnashed, and the school grounds will be pretty much littered with corpses.

Lies, violence

Hugo focuses his disdain on Odin's white girlfriend, Desi (Julia Stiles). Odin and Desi have secretly been an item for a couple of months. Her father, played by John Heard, is the dean of Palmetto Grove (does anyone attend this school without their parents?). He knows nothing about his daughter's after-class activities.

Hugo convinces him that Odin is making Desi "do things" that no self- respecting girl should to do. Soon, Hugo and his sniveling rich-boy sidekicks will be spreading rumors like mosquitoes with West Nile virus, with Odin eventually believing -- incorrectly -- that Desi is two-timing him.

In these days of senseless school shootings, it's not impossible to imagine a troubled teenager getting increasingly violent as his heroic dream world collapses around him. But Odin gets too crazy too quickly. He controls a basketball game like a general, and the other students focus on him as a fount of all that's good and right. You don't have that kind of command without the slightest hint of self-confidence.

But Odin goes off the deep end with a vigor that suggests he's been standing on the edge of the pool all along. There are moments when he seems more immediately unstable than Hugo, who, if he applied himself, could conceivably have his condition upgraded to "psychopath."

Well-handled games

Still, Nelson knows what tone he's aiming for, and he handles the basketball games beautifully. There's not a lot of cross-cutting; a wide-angle lens takes in the action all at once. Nelson's production notes state that the actors attended a basketball training camp before shooting began, and the preparation shows. Your suspension of disbelief doesn't waver during the games, an accomplishment that would have saved more than a few iffy sports-oriented pictures.

The cast, as already stated, deserves a great deal of credit. Phifer is handsome and extremely charismatic. He really seems like a leader, at least until he starts falling apart at the seams. Stiles displays her usual cool intelligence, and Hartnett is not quite the squinting totem pole that he was in "Pearl Harbor."

"O" may not be a classic adaptation, but it works a lot better than it should have. Give this one a try, if you're at all interested. And look for Nelson to do bigger and better things in the future.

"O" contains some intense moments. There's profanity, drinking, drug use, lovemaking that turns into rape, point-blank shootings, and a horrible, heart-breaking strangulation. Go team go! Rated R. 138 minutes.

• 'O' - official site

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