Logline: In this modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello, Mekhi Phifer plays Odin, basketball star and the only African-American at a South Carolina preparatory school, who is driven mad by the vengeful machinations of a jealous teammate, the coach’s son Hugo (Josh Hartnett).

If you’ve read my film criticism for long enough, you know that I hate hate hate hate motherfucking hate it when people talk during a movie. At least in a theatre. I can accept it in a private setting (mostly), where I understand that the moviewatching isn’t necessarily the biggest draw in whatever hang-out-at-home activity you have planned. But a movie theatre is not your living room, and talking, texting, being a self-centered asshole only ruins the experience for many people in the audience. My understanding, though, is that I’m worse than most people, and often a conversation or shitty audience member tics (like somebody saying “Oh my god” at every single goddamn funny moment, like when I saw Due Date last year) that nearly ruins a movie for me goes unheard by everybody but me. (Recently, it’s been happening more often, when a movie experience will be rendered awful simply by somebody having a picnic at their seat two rows back, and then I find out later my wife didn’t even notice.)

I have a problem. I know that. But you’re at a movie theatre, and by paying for that ticket, you have legally entered into a contract with the theatre itself and their rules, and every mainstream theatre in America has a “keep it the fuck down” section in said rules.

All this is merely a lead-up to something more relevant to this review. (And also me saying, “Hey, if you read this blog, you should know better.”) Despite whatever idiosyncrasies I have – and there are many – I understand that not everybody else possesses them. Maybe talking during a movie doesn’t bug you. Okay. That’s fine. I wish I could be as evolved as you, and I’ve tried and failed for almost 30 years now. But do you know what would have absolutely bugged the shit out of you? The audience I saw O with in Long Beach, who booed all the white people in the film (keep in mind this rowdy crowd was not predominately African-American, but they were predominately assholes), laughed and applauded during the vicious rape scene, and openly mocked the ending of what is one of the greatest tragic stories of the last 400+ years.

That shit ruined the movie for me, a movie I had been looking forward to for over two years (it was to come out in April 1999, but was pushed back after the Columbine massacre), and while I obviously saw this movie during its initial theatrical run (why I was in Long Beach is really a story for another day), it feels like the first time I actually experienced the entire motion picture was two days ago when I popped in the DVD, sat down on my couch, and allowed actor/director Tim Blake Nelson to remind me that he made a friggin’ near-masterpiece with this one.

This is to say, I don’t need to break down this review into “Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember” sections, because, clearly, it is. Mekhi Phifer gives the second-best performance of his career (#1 would be Spike Lee’s Clockers) in a role that could have suffered from intense overacting, something that happens to many an actor who takes on the role of Othello, and he elicits such a perfect mixture of hatred and pity from the viewer that he puts Laurence Fishburne to shame. Josh Hartnett underplays the steroids-addicted Hugo so much for the majority of the movie (he, of course, explodes during the final act) that his harshest critics once again mistook his subtlety for bad acting. What they don’t realize is that that he turned the Iago character into a suffering, sniveling, wound-up mess of neuroses and racial tension and daddy-why-won’t-you-love-me jealousy to such a perfect degree that I can’t think of a better actor for the role. And in the supporting roles, Elden Henson (Roger/Roderigo) and Andrew Keegan (Michael Cassio) clearly understand the great power in roles that often go overlooked during discussions of Shakespeare’s play.

The only weak link, again, is Julia Stiles as Desi. This was not supposed to happen. IMDb informs me that Christina Ricci originally had the role, which while not perfect casting, is better than the cold, stone-faced Stiles. Stiles can be good when she wants to be (10 Things…, The Business of Strangers, what I hear is a good performance on Dexter, and she’s apparently much better onstage), but she cannot play warm or inviting, and so the ultimate tragedy of her death at the hands of her confused lover never pays off the way it should, and I tend to blame her more than the screenplay or the direction, because I love everything else about those two facets.

High school continues to be an extremely versatile setting for any number of stories, and what some see as lazy kowtowing to the 18-34 demographic I see as a fundamental comprehension of human nature, human suffering, and human emotions. At least when it works. Here’s why in terms of O. (I could write a dang book on the genre/setting as a whole, but we don’t have time for that.)

  1. High school is the perfect microcosm for society, and by taking the entire world and condensing it to a few small, walled-off acres, you’ve created a metaphor without even trying.
  2. Shakespeare’s characters were always a little over-accelerated, self-centered and in love with their own words, explosively emotional and bipolar, frequently obtuse, and crazy horny. You know, like teenagers.
  3. For four years (and many beyond depending on how the rest of their lives go), high school sports is the most important thing in the world to millions of students every year. Every game feels like life or death, and to be sidelined in your own world (as is what happens to Hugo/Iago) can seem like the end of the world. (I could have done without the slam dunk competition, though. That is the film’s only lazy spot.)

How could this film not have worked? Nelson has always had an incredible control over the emotional content of his films (with the exception of the Edward Norton-is-twins film Leaves of Grass, which never settles on a tone), and Brad Kaaya’s screenplay gives him plenty to play with.

This is a film that got buried by controversy when it didn’t need to, and by collecting dust in the vault for over two years, it lost some of its impact upon its release. I think it’s awards-worthy, but not enough people really saw it.

And I’m glad I actually got to see the proper movie this time, without people laughing at rape.