Leave it to Hollywood to deem a 400-year-old story too controversial for our delicate modern-day sensibilities. O, another Shakespeare-goes-to-high-school retelling, wrapped production soon after the Columbine shootings in 1999, and the subsequent focus on the influence of violence in the media prompted Miramax to put its tail between its legs and the movie on the shelf. Then, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, a prominent supporter of the Democratic party, was allegedly hesitant to release the movie during the Gore-Lieberman campaign the following year. As a result, O was given seven release dates. But now that its film is safely opening during the end-of-summer dearth, Miramax can rest assured that O will have little impact on the few who bother to see it.

Now, I know that the world’s a crazy place. I also know that violence among students even younger than high school age has become frighteningly prevalent in recent years, with rage erupting over issues as complex as alienation and as simple as wearing the wrong shoes. But from its opening scene—a flutter of doves accompanied by a voice-over by Hugo (Josh Hartnett) claiming that he’s always wanted to fly, even though he knows “you’re not supposed to be jealous of anything”—to its deadly final act, this version of Othello doesn’t make much sense, even in its contemporary kids-with-guns setting.

Hugo’s puzzling assertion that jealousy is unnatural is an ironic introduction to a very angry young man: The son of his high school’s basketball coach (Martin Sheen), Hugo must contend with his father’s devotion to the team’s superstar, Odin (Mekhi Phifer), whom Dad openly admits to loving like his own son. Odin, the school’s only black student, is dating the dean’s daughter, Desi (Julia Stiles), who in turn is desired by Hugo’s misfit friend Roger (Elden Henson). To exact revenge on Odin for being so admired (assisting Roger hardly seems even a secondary motivation after the initial I’ll-help-you-get-her conversation), Hugo attempts to persuade Odin that Desi is a two-timin’ hussy who’ll give his grandma’s scarf to the first prettyboy who makes eyes at her. After too few whispered conversations between Hugo and Odin—”They call you nigger, man!”; cue tear—murderous rage follows.

Yet the gravitas and elaborate schemes of Shakespeare’s drama don’t quite translate to a teenage realm—at least not in this shoddily constructed 90-minute version. Odin’s relationship with Desi isn’t sufficiently built up to show us that they’re a hot-and-heavy couple whose love was worthy of homicide; the one scene that’s meant to reveal the depth of their feelings—Odin’s proposal of a “pretend” marriage, complete with a rubber-band-like ring—serves only to reinforce the notion that these are kids at play whose idea of treachery is along the lines of not wearing school colors to a game.

At least one sequence was clearly reworked between the film’s various release dates. Early reports of the movie noted Odin’s graphic rape of Desi; in the current version, nothing more than a minute or so of rough sex ensues after a tender and clearly consensual beginning. Perhaps also left on the cutting-room floor were scenes hinting that Odin was anything but a nice kid: Soon after Hugo starts buzzing in his ear, our first abrupt clue that Odin isn’t a stable Mabel comes during a slam-dunk competition, in which he shatters the backboard in dramatic slo-mo, continues to attack it until it’s completely destroyed, and runs off the court to the boos of his stunned classmates. Who knew that Desi’s stilted conversation and bad dance moves could provoke such a dramatic gesture?

Such clunky exposition gives O the feel of a slapped-together after-school special. Though scripter Brad Kaaya does a credible job of staying true to the plot details of Shakespeare’s play, including the crucial planting of the scarf, the lack of character development ensures each actor’s ineffectual flatness: Phifer is adept at both Jekyll and Hyde, but there’s little chance for him to express his turning emotions; Hartnett’s pout serves one-note Hugo well, but he’s too often lurking in the wings for us to understand why he’s so troubled; and Stiles—who proved that she can handle Shakespeare in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet last year—is given little more to do than coo at Odin and defend him to her cartoonishly scornful roommate (Rain Phoenix, whose permanently dour expression suggests true homicidal tendencies). And while the rest of the cast sleepwalk in time with the film’s plodding pace, Sheen puts more misguided energy into his crazed, ever-shouting, tantrum-throwing Coach Goulding than you’ll see in an entire season of The West Wing: When Hugo doesn’t immediately leave his father’s office after a talk, Goulding shoves everything off his desk with a maniacal swipe—and maintains that unnecessary level of intensity in most of his scenes.

Unlike Almereyda’s Hamlet, which moved its story to modern times while keeping Shakespeare’s Elizabethan diction, O has its players communicate in what’s supposed to be all-American teenspeak but which ends up often sounding more anachronistic than the “thou”s and “fie”s of the Bard: An oversprinkling of “yo”s and “bro”s along with a post-shooting mention of keeping in touch on a “cellular” make the 20-something actors sound like parents using their kids’ slang, and lines such as “My father’s a smart man, but he’s never actually been through anything” and “I know you grew up in the ‘hood and have seen your share of hustlers, but I know white girls” make the characters sound just plain stupid.

Director Tim Blake Nelson plays it straight when he shouldn’t—in the first half of the film, when a few of the scenes could have used a little stylish gimmickry—and gets fancy when it’s too late, using grainy images, dramatic stills, and an operatic score in an attempt to complement the drama that’s not quite there. The bloodshed isn’t all that bloody and is accompanied by concerns about getting to the game on time, and worries about the murders that just took place go no deeper than “He’s going to tell on me!” All of which makes O feel a little pointless: Wouldn’t teens this vacuous have been satisfied with egging a couple houses and forgetting about the ho?

Perhaps Sheen’s unintentionally funny coach could have added some spark to Summer Catch, a lighter yet equally insufferable take on promising athletes and their bucketfuls of emotions. Nothing against Brian Dennehy, mind you, who gives the film’s most respectable performance as the clichéd fatherly but hard-assed leader of a Cape Cod baseball team, but a little bug-eyed craziness would have been a welcome distraction from the allegedly traumatic nonevents of his players’ lives and their emotionless, televised-golf-boring games.

Freddie Prinze Jr. is Ryan Dunne, a blue-collar local boy with a one-scene accent who makes good by playing for the distinguished Chatham A’s, a summer team that preps college kids for the big leagues. Allusions are made to his troubles as a ballplayer—he’s a hothead? has a chip on his shoulder? thinks the world owes him since Mom died?—but the movie shows only evidence to the contrary, leaving viewers to wonder just what in the hell everyone’s talking about when they’re doubting his chances for success.

Ryan sleeps on the ball field the night before the first practice to ensure that he shows up on time; still mows lawns for a living with his drunken, you’ll-never-make-it father; and offers nothing but yes-sir/no-sirs to his coach and the other man he’s hellbent on impressing: Rand Parrish (Bruce Davison), father of Tenley (Jessica Biel), whom Ryan thinks is ever so dreamy. Because Tenley comes from a family whose members wear pastel-colored sweaters around their shoulders and employ the Dunne duo to manicure their lawns (Davison, previously in Crazy/Beautiful, is getting good at these stuffy, stay-away-from-my-daughter roles), securing her love soon becomes Ryan’s primary major-league aspiration.

Summer Catch blatantly channels Bull Durham in several bits that should add nuance but are simply played for laughs: There’s the ballplayer wearing women’s underwear, there’s poetry as foreplay, there’s the local whore and Mrs. Robinson-like initiator of new talent (in an unfunny subplot which exists only to give Wilmer Valderrama, forever Fez, something to do). And, supposedly centering the movie, there’s the wild talent who needs to learn discipline to make it to the Show. Prinze’s warm Bambi eyes and chiseled face are aces when it comes to filling up the screen with a fuzzy luv glow, but troubled he’s not. (Nor is he funny. Matthew Lillard, playing Ryan’s best bud, is the only consistent laugh throughout the movie, and his frat-boy mannerisms are wisely limited to small doses to keep him from becoming grating.)

Biel is as likable as a rich girl named Tenley can be, even as she stretches the limits of sympathy when she whines “I just wanted to do nothing for the summer!” in a Daddy-controls-my-life huff that somehow has something to do with whom she’s dating. Once she’s given the task of spouting every reach-for-success axiom in the book to encourage the self-doubting Ryan, however, her WB roots start to show. (To be fair, it’d take quite an actress to take the retch out of lines such as “You have to allow yourself to succeed” and “Let yourself be great tomorrow!”) And she does manage to pull off Summer Catch’s most amusing line: a triumphantly perky “Let’s be together!” at film’s end.

Speaking of the end, Summer Catch’s touchy-feely closing will frustrate even those who just want to see a romantic comedy—and will be absolute torture for anyone who’s looking for a sports movie. There might not be crying in baseball, but the fairy dust that’s sprinkled on this jock-in-love story suggests that these guys are more Oprah than O’s. CP

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