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B-ball Bard

In O, the star of a high-school basketball team becomes Shakespeare's famous black protagonist

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We're in a tony prep school in the Palmetto State. Not surprisingly, many of the kids here are dreaming of scholastic realms one state to the north. A few of the brainier types have Duke pennants on their dorm walls. And some basketball players have their sights set on Chapel Hill. As a dramatic milieu, this is all perfectly convincing and credible. Can it also be, of all things--Shakespeare?

Indeed it is. Tim Blake Nelson's O takes Othello, replaces the play's language with contemporary lingo, and sets the Bard's interracial tale of jealousy and treachery in a Charleston, S.C., boarding school. The result is not only a thoroughly engrossing and relentlessly thought-provoking movie. It's also that rarity: a Shakespeare film that's likely to be as popular with teenage and college-age viewers as with older audiences. (Granted, both the Zefferelli and Luhrmann screen versions of Romeo and Juliet had young constituencies, but that play always had a youth market appeal which has never been imputed to Othello.)

Ironically, part of O's success with younger viewers will surely be owed to its delayed release, the product of a rather unfortunate collision with the zeitgeist. Produced independently, Nelson's film was shot in early 1999 and sold to Miramax's Dimension division. In April of that year, while it was being edited, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris unleashed their deadly assault on Columbine High School. As a result, Miramax, which is owned by Disney, delayed the movie's release, not wanting to seem to capitalize on (or risk inciting) tragedy with its own tale of high-school fury and mayhem.

The delays kept coming, too. The details of this haven't made it into the press, but my guess is that Disney never could get comfortable with having one of its divisions release the movie, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare. So Miramax eventually sold the film to Lion's Gate, which is releasing it. The unexpected advantage of these delays stem from the fact that in recent months two of O's leads have become stars: Josh Hartnett, who plays the Iago character, for Pearl Harbor; and Julia Stiles, O's Desdemona, for the sleeper teen hit Save the Last Dance.

Albeit belatedly, O takes its place in a de facto genre that only recently has become an area of surprising promise and respectability: American versions of Shakespeare. Just a few years back, studios and moviegoers alike seemed to assume that any new Shakespeare film had to feature posh Brit accents and, usually, the doughy presence of the lamentable Kenneth Branagh. One of the '90s films to weigh in the opposite direction, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, mounted an eloquent argument not only for the pleasures of Shakespeare's language but for American actors' growing ability and freshness in handling it. That position has received a lot of support in films like Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, which featured sterling performances by the likes of Ethan Hawke, Bill Murray, Kyle Maclachlan and, as Ophelia, Julia Stiles. At this point, I'm as curious to check out any new American Shakespeare production as I am likely to pass up its British counterparts.

But what of a film that ditches Shakespeare's language? This was the aspect of O that filled me with the greatest trepidation, but the film deftly countered those worries by proving that the playwright's genius lies not just in his words but also in his plots and characters. It's fascinating to see how the latter can operate independently of the former. But more than that, O demonstrates the apparently inexhaustible capacity of Shakespeare's stories to rekindle their provocations and excitements in new contexts. Setting Othello in a milieu of high-school basketball in the South, it turns out, is far from a flashy gimmick. As O does it, it's so right, so fitting and immediately resonant, as to be almost uncanny.

Scripted by Brad Kaaya, a young black writer who himself attended a mostly white private school, O finds its Othello in Odin (Mekhi Phifer), the sparkplug of his prep school's basketball team, a player who's evidently headed for great things in college. Odin, not suprisingly, is worshipped by the team's coach (Martin Sheen), who happens to be the father of another, only slightly less gifted player, Hugo (Hartnett). With an entirely understandable inexorability, his father's doting on Odin begins to grate on Hugo, until the players' friendship slowly curdles into something grim and poisonous.

Odin is dating Desi (Stiles), the daughter of the school's headmaster. In contemporary terms, the relationship is entirely credible: These two seem like a real, committed high- school age couple, equally passionate and thoughtful toward each other. Yet that only underscores the extent to which their romance is built on tricky ground. One of the few black students in this prep environment, Odin is surely aware that he's effectively on stage every moment of his life. And while Desi seems sure that her father's liberalism will safeguard her choices in private life, that certainty is one of several that will crumble when tested by Hugo's secret manipulations.

Though virtually any Shakespeare play could be played in a high-school setting, O suggests that Othello might be the best suited of all to that transposition, since this time of life is so filled with the temptations of jealousy, romantic suspicion, cliquish rivalry and brooding violence. And setting the film in the South brilliantly amplifies those tensions by highlighting the importance of the racial threads in Shakespeare's rich, ornate tapestry.

Obviously, Odin recalls O.J. Simpson, except that he's an actual victim rather than a likely psychopath who clung to victim status as his legal life raft. The prep school sports hero is under pressure constantly just by being one of the few blacks in a privileged white institution. Will he crack under the strain? Perhaps the question should be: Will elements of that privileged institution exploit his vulnerability to make sure that he cracks? In some senses of course, the painful ramifications of this story belong to America at large. Nevertheless, they're at their most undeniable and heartbreaking in the South, where the nation's veneer of interracial civil concord is perhaps still at its thinnest and most fragile.

Tim Blake Nelson, who previously directed the indie feature Eye of God and co-starred in the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is one of those actor-directors who puts the emphasis on performances rather than stylistic sheen, but that suits O's purposes very handily. Nelson gets performances out of Phifer, Stiles and Hartnett that are so well matched in their strengths that none jars against the others or the context. All three actors prove expertly believable both as contemporary Southern high schoolers and as latter-day incarnations of three Shakespeare icons.

As it should, O ends up being very moving, which is why no educator should hesitate to recommend it to young audiences. Unlike most dramatic entertainment that teenagers are now exposed to, it brings home the full scope of human suffering, as well as the possibility for understanding and growth, that lie behind the word "tragedy."

A slick piece of overwrought nothingness, the would-be thriller The Deep End left me brooding on the difference between pulp fiction that rises to the level of art and that which hopes to but fails.

Books or movies of the former category have about them, and offer to the reader/viewer, a kind of awareness that comprehends and astutely elucidates the more limited awarenesses of the characters they contain. Hitchcock's films are among a number of genre entertainments that exemplify this virtue. Failed stabs at pulp art, meanwhile, are those in which both the artist and the viewer remain enmeshed in the limited, usually somewhat delusional awareness of the main character(s). The Deep End fits that description to a T. It's a film that inadvertently celebrates the dim cluelessness of its makers as well as viewers who buy into it.

Set along the silvery edges of Lake Tahoe, the film concerns a middle-class mom (British actress Tilda Swinton) who discovers that her 17-year-old son (Jonathan Tucker) has been having an affair with a man. The son's lover (Josh Lucas), a leering sleazeball odious enough for any homophobe's nightmare, shows up at her home one night and ends up impaling himself on a boat anchor. When Mom discovers the body the next morning, she decides to conceal the death, and dumps the body in the lake. The rest of the story concerns her efforts to elude the consequences of this deed, which include blackmail and, eventually, more deaths.

One mark of bad pulp straining to be art is a penchant for utter preposterousness. The Deep End, which was co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, stumbles from one groansome test of our credulity to another. Tahoe is one of the deepest lakes in the world, yet Mom dumps the body right at the shore's edge in about five feet of water, where it can be easily seen by any passer-by. And so on.

But the film's signal weakness lies in its failure to plumb the emotional conflicts at its core. Put simply, it wants us to believe (or assume) that Mom is doing all this to protect her son. It doesn't want us to distinguish that possibility (which is her own, at least partly delusional understanding of her actions) from another: that her crime is meant only to protect her, her life's facade of middle-class propriety, her emotional distance from her gay son and her absent husband (who is "away at sea" throughout the story).

Is it possible that Mom, rather than going to extraordinary lengths to save her son, would just as soon see him dead too? Well, consider this: The blackmailers show Mom a tape of her boy being anally ravished by his lover, yet Mom never asks Sonny if at that moment he was protected from HIV transmission. In the age of "Silence = Death," that unposed question reads suspiciously like a death wish on the part of a woman who obviously can't stand the thought of having to tell her husband that their son is gay.

A movie that cared for the human realities behind its plot mechanics would explore this very rich, if troubling, subject: the reserves of unrecognized hostility that supposedly liberal, loving parents bear toward their gay offspring. But The Deep End is itself not a film of the artistic depths, but of the easy, familiar genre shallows. EndBlock

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