Yo, It’s Like So Tragic

Every age creates its own Shakespeare. From rock ‘n’ roll

Hamlets to the Merchant of Venice as a Prohibition gangster, to Leonardo

DiCaprio playing Romeo like Henry Aldrich, directors of stage and screen have

been literally knocking themselves senseless making history’s greatest poet and

playwright more accessible to the unwashed masses. In his day, the Bard voiced

his own disdain for the cognoscenti, and might, almost 400 years after his

death, welcome a few contemporary opinions from the proletariat at the local

multiplex. But I think he would draw the line at O .

In accordance with the new laws of sentimentality patented

by MTV, director Tim Blake Nelson uses Othello

to preach a bleak and bitter little sermon on the evils of teenage hedonism and

Southern bigotry, with Charleston

instead of Venice and a basketball

court instead of a battlefield. The ambition exceeds the talent. As a

self-indulgent actor, Mr. Nelson gave one of the worst performances of 2000 as

the mewling crackpot convict in the dismal Coen brothers haystack farce, O Brother, Where Art Thou? As a

director, his lack of subtlety behind the camera has the same pitchfork effect.

Despite a sincere performance by the enchanting Julia Stiles

as a dreamy-puss Desdemona in love with a black hip-hop Othello, nothing about O rings true. Setting Shakespeare’s

classic tragedy of treachery and betrayal on the elitist campus of a South

Carolina prep school is a stretch, but is not in

itself the problem. An interesting interracial romance in an ante-bellum

setting could provide a cogent historical analogy, but the corny, symbolic

close-ups of cooing doves scared away by cell phones and rap songs evoke more

laughs than sympathy.

Othello is now Odin or O, the only black student in an

all-white old-boys school, played with streetwise ferocity by the charmless

Mekhi Phifer. Desdemona is now Desi, who is not only the most beautiful

magnolia in the Palmetto Grove

Academy but the daughter of the

dean (John Heard). The diabolical Iago is their classmate, Hugo (Josh Hartnett,

fresh from the dying fields of Pearl

Harbor ). Cunning, smart and smoldering with jealousy because

his father (the Duke of Venice is now a basketball coach called, simply, “The

Duke,” played by Martin Sheen) pays more attention to O than he does to his own

son, Hugo sets out to wreck O’s love affair with Desi, ruin her reputation and

manipulate everyone on campus to a violent end. Playing them all against each

other, Hugo plants doubts and suspicions in Odin’s simple mind that build to a

psychotic obsession; he also gets a teammate grounded for fighting, murders one

of his best friends, reduces the sweet, all-American Desi to suicidal despair

and drives O to drugs and a slaughter-fest that piles bodies all over the

dormitory like sleeping bags.

The Othello text

is contemporized with lurid Columbine High warnings about school violence, the

dangers of steroids and corrupt values that place basketball trophies above

human rights, but the sad truth is there’s nothing in O with the same lucidity, succinctness, depth of insight or energy

of expression I have seen in any previous production, including the flawed

Laurence Fishburne film version.

Character motivation is essential for Othello to work on any level. It is sorely missing here. Even for a

color-blind 18-year-old refreshingly damage-free from racial intolerance, it’s

hard to believe that the most popular girl in school would defy her own family

and destroy her own future to fall under the sexual spell of a black student

who knocks her around with jiveass talk (“You get all hot an’ shit, then I do

what I want witchoo”). An Othello who calls himself “nigger” in a distinguished

school that eagerly accepts him as an equal has no stature, and is therefore not

a noble, tragic hero. Mekhi Phifer’s O is not a handsome, likable,

well-mannered class-structure invader like Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation , and Charleston

is not a park bench in Central Park. He’s not in South

Carolina because he’s a brilliant student from a good

family filling a quota, but because he can slam-dunk from 20 feet. Why would

Desi risk everything just to sleep with him? In real life, faced with the glare

of a scandal, the dean of the school would either expel the boy or ship his daughter

off to boot camp.

As the villainous Hugo, Mr. Hartnett makes even less sense.

Why would the brightest and most attractive guy in town feel so needy and

desperate for attention? Why does he envy O in the first place? When he says

“I’d give my left nut to be in your shoes” to a black teen with a dim academic

future, you sort of wonder why his own father doesn’t pack him off to the

Austin Riggs Psychiatric Institute for Distinguished Breakdowns. And while

you’re puzzling the lack of logic, the soundtrack lurches from nauseating rap

to the “Ave Maria” from-you got it-Verdi’s opera Otello , just to remind you where you are and why you came. If the

filmmakers intended a revisionist Othello

for kids on a serious theme-the corrosion of hope, youth and innocence by

jealousy, ignorance and the pressures of society-they have failed badly. In

light of recent campus tragedies, marketing this gloomy film for a younger

generation unfamiliar with Shakespeare as “controversial” is merely a desperate

ruse to deflect attention from the fact that it’s not a very good movie.

The last words spoken by Prospero in The Tempest -and, as far as we know, the last words penned by

Shakespeare-were “Let your indulgence set me free.” There’s plenty of

indulgence in O , but with all the teen

sex, cocaine and .38-caliber automatics, the Bard must be turning over in his

grave.

Who’s Famous? Colin

Farrell

With this issue, I’m off to Maine

to work on my end-of-summer tan and crack a few lobsters. While I’m away, here

are some thoughts on two of the new films blasting onto a marquee near you. The

only reason to see American Outlaws

is the Irish actor Colin Farrell, who fulfills the promise of last season’s Tigerland with a glam Jesse James that

redefines the term “budding supernova.” Talented, imposing and suitable for

framing, this Dublin import may

give every appearance of being the next Mel Gibson, but he can also act. The

rest of the movie, poorly scripted by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers and

boringly directed by Les Mayfield, is a big yawn that only reminds us why movie

westerns are six feet under and not likely to make a comeback.

The story, which monkeys around with the facts, is the same

familiar saga from countless outlaw flicks about the embittered farmers who

returned home after the Civil War to find their land usurped by railroad

barons. The James boys, Jesse and Frank, formed a gang with their cousins, the

Younger brothers, to defend their land, robbed banks to help their struggling

neighbors survive and became Robin Hoods to the farmers and public enemies to

the government. In this revisionist version, the mythic stuff has more laughs

than thrills, which is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Flubber . There’s some high-powered

action in the saddle, plenty of fancy shooting and a horse stampede, but it is

doubtful that the gang paused in the middle of holdups to argue over who got

better billing in the “Wanted” posters.

Frank (Gabriel Macht) recites Shakespeare, Jesse learns to

square-dance and even his romance with a tomboy farm girl (Ali Larter, the

cheerleader from Varsity Blues ) has a

rosy ending. In real life, as realistically depicted in the far superior 1939

film Jesse James , starring Tyrone

Power, James was shot in the back of the head and killed at age 34 by one of

his own men while peacefully straightening a picture on the wall. In this

for-kids-only version, he happily survives, ready for the sequel. The rest of

the gang-including Will McCormack, Gregory Smith and James Caan’s son Scott-are

a bunch of 8 x 10 glossies who appear to have

miraculous access to blow-dryers, manicurists and personal trainers unheard of

by young guns in the Old West for at least another 130 years. Since most of

them look exactly alike, you’ll have no trouble concentrating on Mr. Farrell,

who, at 25, is only one year older than Tyrone Power was when he played Jesse,

and every bit as charismatic. American

Outlaws may be on its way to the video store before you finish this

sentence, but Colin Farrell is on his way to stardom.

In the fitfully amusing but ultimately inconsequential Lisa Picard Is Famous , an experimental,

partially improvised comedy directed by Griffin Dunne, a documentary filmmaker

(played by Mr. Dunne, mostly off-camera) trains his cameras on the daily

rituals of a New York actress struggling for her 15 minutes of recognition in

the get-famous business. Lisa (played with perky, wide-eyed naïveté by Laura

Kirk) is an unknown on the brink of public adoration. She’s got a Wheat Chex

commercial and her own Web site, and she’s ready for Broadway. While Mr. Dunne

interviews bartenders, casting directors and every star Lisa comes across,

serendipitous old New York forms a matrix (don’t we all run into Sandra Bullock

in the Mail Boxes Etc. while sending off fliers?) that doesn’t entirely

convince.

Everyone tells Lisa she looks like Penelope Ann Miller, so

Mr. Dunne captures the real Penelope Ann and asks her if anyone has ever told

her she looks like Lisa Picard. She looks dumbfounded. This sort of thing plods

on for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Lisa’s best friend, a gay actor with absolutely

no talent at all, played by Nat DeWolf, gets his own 15 minutes of fame with a

one-man show about gay life that attracts the unlikely attention of Spike Lee

and Charlie Sheen. Shot digitally from a script by Ms. Kirk and Mr. DeWolf that

was developed in Mira Sorvino’s living room, the whole thing smacks of inside

parlor-game charades, but it does show the humor and humiliation that play

equal parts in the acting business while asking one basic question: How much

precious anonymity should a nobody sacrifice for public acceptance? The answer

comes in small, smart-alecky sips instead of one big, satisfying gulp, but in

the end I was still thirsty. Lisa Picard

Is Famous is to film what Off Off Broadway is to theater.