Reign Over Me has the difficult task of taking subject matter that is by nature downbeat and finding something life-affirming in it, without ever becoming exploitive. Step too far in one direction or another with this material and you risk offending the audience. It is a credit to the film that it manages to hit just the right notes, effectively tapping into the sorrow of our post-9/11 world without ever pandering or sensationalizing things.
Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a Manhattan dentist experiencing some of the pangs of adult life. He loves his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), yet has closed himself off emotionally to her. She wants him to do things like take photography courses, where as he misses doing “guy things” like playing poker and golfing. Meanwhile, an oversexed patient (Saffron Burrows), whose advances he rejected, is making false allegations against him. Alan knows that things in his life aren’t necessarily swinging in the direction he would like them to.
As he sits in traffic one afternoon, Alan spots his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler). Charlie’s wife and three daughters were on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, and he’s clearly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Charlie seems to live in a self-imposed isolation. He zips around town on a motorized scooter, listens to his iPod to avoid interaction with other people, and spends his time playing video games or remodeling his kitchen over and over. What he does not do is discuss his family.
The two tenuously reconnect, with Alan realizing that his friend is in desperate need of help. He starts hanging around Charlie at all hours of the day and night, trying to be a good friend (much to his wife’s consternation). When it’s clear that Charlie needs something more than just a friend, Alan hooks him up with a psychiatrist (Liv Tyler), who works in his building. Charlie doesn’t want to talk about or even remember his past life, but Alan and the psychiatrist keep trying to crack him open, with help from the in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon) from whom he has distanced himself.
Perhaps the first thing to say about Reign Over Me is that it’s not the kind of movie you expect to see Adam Sandler in. The actor’s previous forays into more grown-up territory (Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish) had dramatic moments, yet dealt with less heavy subject matter than this film. Sandler is terrific, though, for one very good reason: he has always had a grain of darkness in him, and that suits him in this role. Although best known for his goofy comedies, you can always see an edge in there, as if he has a little well of anger somewhere deep inside that he can draw upon. (It pops up particularly in Big Daddy and Anger Management.) While he’s not the immediate choice for the role, Sandler is quite effective. You get the sense that he understands this guy. After a few minutes, you forget you’re watching Adam Sandler and you start believing the character.
I liked the chemistry between him and Don Cheadle. To use a Rain Man analogy, Cheadle plays Tom Cruise to Sandler’s Dustin Hoffman. In other words, Sandler has the showier role, but Cheadle’s character is really the emotional compass of the story. Alan’s wife wonders why he spends so much time with Charlie, but we know the answer: by helping his old pal heal, Alan is hoping to heal something in himself. Cheadle makes the character’s journey feel very authentic.
Reign Over Me works on a couple different levels, but the deepest is in its suggestion that we all need to heal from 9/11. Although Alan did not personally lose anyone in the tragedy, he has great empathy – bordering on preoccupation – for his friend who did. I think there’s a lot of truth here. Don’t we all look with some fascination at those who experienced the loss and devastation of Sept. 11 firsthand? Are we not all compelled by their stories which, horrible as they are, touch some part of us that is still unable to comprehend those events five years later? And, most importantly, don’t we all subconsciously believe that if the family members of those who died can carry on, that we can too? For me, this is the heart of the story. Alan knows his life has gone somewhat off track. If he can help his buddy, whose problems are infinitely worse, then there’s hope for him as well.
Writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) never beats you over the head with this. In fact, it’s all pretty subtle, which just makes it more effective. Despite the presence of two big stars, Reign Over Me has the feel of an indie film. It introduces characters and a concept, then assumes you will be able to read between the lines thematically. On the occasional moment here and there, the story’s drama tips ever so slightly into melodrama. But for the most part, the film connects on an emotional level.
The title comes from an old song called “Love, Reign O’er Me” by The Who. I wasn’t familiar with the tune before seeing the movie, yet I was immediately struck by how relevant it is to the story. Love is the most powerful emotion we know. It can drive your every action. It can fill you with joy when it is present and destroy you if it is lost. As Alan and Charlie ultimately discover, it can also save your life.
( 1/2 out of four)
Reign Over Me is rated R for language and some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Reign Over Me
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