We saw the acute pain and grief brought about by the lives lost in the immediacy of the 9/11 tragedy while watching United 93 and WorldTradeCenter. Reign Over Me explores similar territory but shifts its focus to the long-term damages suffered by those left abandoned in the wake of the tragedy -- those who lost family members. As time goes by, I guess we should expect the horrific event to become more and more intertwined within the plots of Hollywood movies. After all, it was an event larger than even Hollywood could imagine.
Adam Sandler is Charlie Fineman, a New York City dentist who lost his wife and three daughters in one of the planes that hit the WorldTradeCenter. His hair now prematurely grayed and disheveled atop his head not unlike an early Bob Dylan, Charlie silently slides about the city on a motorized scooter, the world around him drowned out by an ipod that incessantly blares The Who or Bruce Springsteen tunes. Having abandoned his practice years ago, and living off his wife's insurance and settlement money, he rarely leaves his apartment except to grab a Chinese takeout. He's a broken man that refuses to entertain even the smallest thoughts of his lost family. Most Assuredly, there are hundreds of Charlies walking the streets of New York City more than five years later.
Don Cheadle is Alan Johnson, another mess of a man, caught up in a cyclical downturn of a strong marriage. But it's not that his marriage isn't without love, it's just that he's not showing up for it. He needs his own space but can't find a way to express his needs to his wife Janeane, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. Adding to his woes, Alan's aging mother and father have devolved into a glum love-hate relationship, too dependent upon each other, yet too angry to occupy the same room. Alan fears his relationship may take a similar turn.
When Alan runs into Charlie one evening on the streets of New York City -- the two were college roommates in dental school -- he gets a glimpse of how far gone Charlie really is and sets out to get him some help. The problem is that Charlie doesn’t subscribe to the "I want to get help" portion of the Psych 101 mantra that tells us a person must want to be helped before any help will actually work. At the first hint of therapeutic banter, Charlie instantly transforms into a violent ball of Raymond Babbit-like idiot-savant anger.
As Charlie and Alan rekindle their relationship, Reign Over Me slowly transforms into a buddy movie. And as buddies will do, the two spend countless hours playing video games, eating pizza, and watching late-night movie marathons, neither willing to address reality with any seriousness. They're both backsliding, but it becomes increasingly clear that Charlie must eventually face what he's been avoiding for so long.
Writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) must take full credit for what makes Reign Over Me work on such a high level. His independent film background becomes evident in his human characterizations and rich dialogue. The film touches on many extremely sad and depressing issues, but Binder works in just enough comedy to keep the thing from falling into a dark pit of gloom and despair. The proceedings often drift from side to side rather then toward an end, but that's appropriate, as it perfectly mirrors the life direction of both Alan and Charlie. Binder's mood feels a lot like that created by Sofia Coppola with her Lost in Translation -- people experiencing and sharing joyous pain together. Another film that comes to mind while watching Reign Over Me -- but only from a visual sense - is Collateral. Both display beautiful digital camera work, grabbing available light in the gritty nighttime of a big city. But since Reign Over Me is a story told from the point of view of a man about the streets and sidewalks, here Binder avoids sweeping helicopter shots of New York landmarks, favoring friendly street-level building facades and shop windows to create the mood. All brilliant filmmaking choices.
Sandler and Cheadle display an interesting chemistry together. I must admit facing a mental roadblock before going in as I tried to visualize the two together. But once again, credit must go to Binder for greasing the wheels of their on-screen magic with snappy, smart dialogue and expert direction. Using Sandler wasn't so much a stretch because he'd shown us his dramatic chops in Punch-Drunk Love, and he exceeds that performance here. But the whole thing wouldn’t work if we didn't believe in the buddy relationship between Charlie and Alan, and these two truly do create magic. Cheadle, the consummate professional, knows and understands that Sandler's Charlie is the center of the story, and he never tries to upstage. The two resonate like a pair of finely tuned instruments playing only the most melancholy of tunes.
Reign Over Me is a buddy film, but it really can't be tagged as such. To call it that conjures up comparisons to 48 Hours, Bad Boys, or Rush Hour. It's much smarter than any of these. Though it uses classic album rock as a loose string to bind the proceedings together, it also takes on mental instability, marital obstacles, and 9/11 post-traumatic stress disorder like an adult, while not making fun of these serious problems.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “R” for language and some drug references.)