It probably isn't the stories; Shakespeare often used preexisting ones. More likely the timeless appeal of the plays comes from their eloquent dissections of such primal human emotions as love, jealousy, and vengeance. Even with such universal themes, however, the specifics often don't hold up in every context. Would the victimization of the Jews in The Merchant of Venice seem as relevant if set in contemporary Hollywood? Would the idea of a woman dressing up as a man be as wacky if set in Greenwich Village as on an ancient Adriatic isle in Twelfth Night?
These are the sorts of problems director Tim Blake Nelson runs into with O, an update of Othello. Shakespeare's language has been jettisoned in favor of contemporary speech, but his structure is slavishly followed; perhaps too slavishly for Miramax, the film's original distributor, which kept this thing in limbo for two years, reputedly asking Nelson to give it a happy ending. (Incidentally, if you don't know the story of Othello, this review contains spoilers, so it might behoove you to go and read the original.)
So anyway, Othello is now named Odin (Mekhi Phifer), Iago is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), and Desdemona is Desi (Julia Stiles). Instead of Venetian soldiers, Odin and Hugo are basketball players at a contemporary South Carolina boarding school. Instead of serving the Duke of Venice, they serve a coach whose name is Duke (Martin Sheen). Hugo (who is the son of "the Duke," as he is called) is clearly unhappy that dear ol' Dad loudly and publicly proclaims to love Odin like his own son. This being South Carolina, you might think many people would be outwardly prejudiced about such statements, but all the racism in this film is repressed. Heck, Desi at one point wears a tank top with a Confederate flag on it, and Odin makes absolutely no comment.
Hugo plans an elaborate scheme to destroy Odin, sowing the seeds of distrust between "O" and another teammate (Andrew Keegan) regarding the faithfulness of Desi. It all ends, as these things invariably do, in bloodshed.
The filmmakers would like to convince you that this movie is a timely comment on high-school violence as depicted by a prescient genius several centuries ago. Miramax executives were so convinced that every time any school violence was reported they delayed the film's release another six months or so. Nelson and company finally sued to get the rights back, and like Kevin Smith before them with Dogma, took their "controversy" to Lion's Gate.
The problem is that the story of Othello isn't at all relevant to the recent spate of school shootings, which featured suicidal latchkey kids (think Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris) taking out bullies (as well as anyone else in the vicinity) before snuffing themselves. Iago's elaborate revenge scheme makes little sense in the present day. Odin is revealed to be a cocaine user; exposing that would surely be sufficient to disgrace him in Duke's eyes. Why Hugo feels the need to plot murders is simply unclear. Yes, jealousy over a woman can make a man homicidal, no question. Sure, racism can play a part if the relationship is a mixed one. Take that premise and set it in high school, and it could perhaps work with a little less reverence for classical structure and a little more awareness of the times we live in.
All the acting, however, is strong. Hartnett and Phifer can shine in virtually anything (see the former in Pearl Harbor and the latter in Uninvited Guest), but it takes talent to wrench a good performance from Stiles. Nelson does it here, freeing her from the facial paralysis that seemed to set in shortly after 10 Things I Hate About You. She's still a little inhibited with the love scenes, but give her time.
It's too bad the rest of the directing doesn't measure up. Nelson has a weird fascination with shooting scenes through open doors, a device that swiftly becomes tiresome. The film generally looks like a TV special, with low production values and lots of closeups. And while cutesy references to the source material may work in comedic updates like 10 Things I Hate About You, this would-be tragedy could do without an opera score from Verdi and a classroom scene in which Hugo, asked to name one of Shakespeare's poems, responds "I thought he wrote movies." If you're a teen who's never heard the story of Othello before, O might be something you should see. If not, you already know better.