Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reign Over Me

REIGN OVER ME (Mike Binder, 2007)

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) bumps into old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) on the streets of Manhattan, but Charlie doesn't recognize him. Alan knows that Charlie lost his wife and daughters in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center on September 11, so he's willing to overlook the fog still lingering over his friend, even if his behavior is cause for concern.

REIGN OVER ME reunites these pals at a time when both are adrift in their own ways. Alan has a family and successful dental practice, but he feels as though he has no life outside of his wife, kids, and job. His lack of friends and hobbies make him feel incomplete. Although it is years after the tragedy that took Charlie's family, his coping method has been to run from reality. He severs ties with everyone who knew his wife and kids, especially his in-laws, and refuses to speak about them. In their absence he fills his time obsessively playing video games, listening to his iPod, shopping for records, and remodeling the kitchen. Content to putter around the city on his motorized scooter, Charlie leads a lonely life.

As they become reacquainted, Alan's concern for Charlie's mental welfare grows. He wants Charlie to get help but is rebuffed every time. Alan's interactions with Charlie consume larger portions of his day, which puts a strain on his marriage. The rekindled friendship is what both men need at this point. The question is whether they can assist one another in moving past their pain or will reinforce their desire to wallow in it.

REIGN OVER ME finds Sandler in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE mode. That's good news for those of us who believe his best work came in Paul Thomas Anderson's film and bad news for those who prefer his lowbrow comedies. Here Sandler has discovered another interesting venue for exploring different shades of the man-child persona he's created.

Sadness, anger, and the desperate need for love and approval are at the core of the characters he plays in every film. REIGN OVER ME taps into those qualities to reveal the human suffering in Charlie. Sandler's "please luv me" whimpering can be grating in his broad comedies, but it's surprisingly effective in a serious setting. He reverts Charlie to a child-like state, at least in appearance, and transforms that vulnerability into a shield and a weapon. What looks like passivity is actually aggression, another staple of Sandler's characterizations. To watch him fight the attempted breaching of his protective shell in this manner is to understand how deeply wounded he is.

Cheadle's performance anchors REIGN OVER ME but is prone to exhibit fewer fireworks. That's necessary to balance Sandler's half, although writer-director Mike Binder shortchanges Alan's psychological complexity. Ostensibly he is the main character, yet the film is less about his story. The tension between him and wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) is explained as standard spousal movie conflict than anything developed organically. For as disheveled as Alan's life is supposed to be, he appears to have it together relatively well.

REIGN OVER ME is an unusual entry among 9/11 movies. It tiptoes around the explicit mention of what occurred while being an undeniable response to how to react in the face of those terrible circumstances. Binder suggests that it's best to let people mourn on their own terms. There is no statute of limitations for working through the process, although one might quibble with the film's implication that Charlie be permitted his own schedule. Presumably it's been five years since the tragedy took place. He's definitely in a position where he needs outside help.

Although muddled and inconsistent, especially toward the end, REIGN OVER ME succeeds with its portrayal of friendship in hard times. Sandler and Cheadle are a likeable pair who pull each other from the ashes of their charred mental states. It's an imperfect film but one worth seeing for their pleasing performances.

Grade: B-

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