on August 31, 2001 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
   William Shakespeare probably never envisioned any of his tragedies bouncing to the beat of hip-hop or the dribble of a basketball, but doubtless he would wholeheartedly have approved of the fresh spin given "Othello," his tale of envy and betrayal, in "O." Director Tim Blake Nelson and writer Brad Kaaya cleverly place the doomed prince on a high school basketball court with all its attendant players. Pulsing not only with rap music, but with the ravages spurred by jealousy, "O" starts off as a hyped-up pep rally but quickly settles into an affecting heart-breaker that would have done Shakespeare proud.

   Odin Jones (Mekhi Phifer) soars as Palmetto Grove Academy's star basketball player (and only black student). The apple of Coach Duke Goulding's eye and an NBA hopeful, Odin, brimming with charm and natural ability, has girlfriend Desi Brable (Julia Stiles) in a swoon and Duke's son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) enveloped in a cloud of envy. Darkly distressed by his father's clear preference of Odin both on and off the court, Hugo demonstrates an unsuspected talent for a different kind of game-playing, setting up his weak, rich roommate Roger (Elden Hensen), his well-meaning girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix) and Odin's best friend and team partner Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) in a determined effort to ruin the star player. Last but not least, Hugo uses his father's plea to look after Odin personally to sew the seeds of distrust and jealousy between Odin and the guileless, ever-trusting Desi.

   Kaaya and Blake Nelson remain remarkably faithful to Shakespeare's oft-told tale (including the clever spins on names), even managing to sneak in a few of Shakespeare's actual lines with ease. Having the action set in a private school ideally suits the story's needs, initially underscoring Odin's uniqueness and isolation and later his mounting suspicions and insecurities. The final violent, domino-effect tragedy, so typical of Shakespeare's darkest works, also logically fits with the hyper-emotional world of adolescence that sadly echoes in too many of today's news headlines.

   Phifer glows with an inner strength and confidence that makes Odin's eventual slide into confusion and doubt all the more disastrous. He and Stiles share an easy chemistry that brings a sweet credibility to their relationship. Hartnett's Hugo also smolders appropriately with an unfathomable rage and frustration edged with a desperate longing for acceptance and admiration that nearly humanizes even the most monstrous of his conniving machinations. The only player who grates a bit too loudly is Sheen's coach, who pitches his theatrics to the upper balcony unnecessarily.

   It's often noted that Shakespeare wrote not for the royals but for the everyday man. Nelson and Kaaya's creativity and their smart young cast confirm the Bard's amazing ability to remain timelessly pertinent and refreshingly entertaining. Starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles and Martin Sheen. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Brad Kaaya. Produced by Daniel Fried, Eric Gitter and Anthony Rhulen. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 91 min

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