While it isn’t a shock to see Adam Sandler reach deep within himself to deliver an emotionally devastating performance in “Reign Over Me,” it’s hard to watch the film fail to follow his impressive lead.
A successful dentist, Alan (Don Cheadle) is living the idyllic New York life with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and children. One day on his way home from work, Alan spies Charlie (Adam Sandler), his old college roommate somberly going about his business. Excited to see his friend, Alan is shocked when Charlie doesn’t recognize him and is emotionally withdrawn. Trying to reconnect, Alan starts to hang around Charlie again, learning the ways of 70s rock, video games, and vinyl appreciation. Alan also learns the reason behind Charlie’s fragile mental state, and hopes to find a way through much needed therapy (from Liv Tyler) to help Charlie reconnect with a world he wants no part of.
Writer/director Mike Binder has an aggravating tendency to rob his movies of true dramatic significance. While his 2005 effort “Upside of Anger” resonated because of the efforts from the heavyweight cast, 2006’s direct-to-video “Man About Town” revealed the sickly sitcom writing malaise that Binder can’t seem to conquer.
“Reign Over Me” is Binder’s most psychologically dark and thematically dense film to date, and one that treads on some very personal real-world fears and doubts. Binder is skating on the thin ice of 9/11 with his film, and a setting like that needs careful scripted attention and actors capable of pulling off the strange ambiance of a city wounded and lives asphyxiated.
As reunited college roomies, the chemistry between Sandler and Cheadle is a thing of pure beauty. Binder is best when writing relationships, especially ones that explore the lament of pre-marital/adulthood freedoms (“Indian Summer”). “Reign” initially assumes the position of a buddy film with Alan chasing Charlie’s fragmented world, soon to be fully seduced by the childlike influence of this damaged man. While not necessarily a comedy, Binder draws the characters very cleanly and with a sense of playfulness in the opening half, while also making sure the audience is well aware of Charlie’s frightening social limitations.
Cheadle’s performance as Alan ranks up there with the actor’s best work. While not suffering the ravages of trauma like Charlie, Alan still struggles with his identity, making Charlie’s antics a release from his increasingly mechanical life. Cheadle’s reading of Alan’s boiling resentment and persistence is shaded delicately, and his scenes with Sandler work on the simple levels of friendship and concern; the two engage in fascinating combat for the duration of the film.
Sandler’s Charlie had the potential to be a flamboyant, tic-riddled annoyance, but the comic icon goes somewhere interesting here: the black shadows of quiet. Charlie is withdrawn and distrustful, and Sandler is interested in playing those endless hallways of loneliness, delving into the character’s music mania and purposed isolation. Yes, this is Sandler’s most profound piece of acting, and yes, it is quite an affecting one. Observing Charlie fight back the ache of psychological confrontation is extraordinary, and Binder is smart enough to let Sandler be.
Because “Reign” develops into such a touching picture of companionship and the arduous process of tragedy, one wonders why Binder feels the urge to turn the story over to bizarre melodrama that pushes the film way past its welcome.
The third act is most assured when it remains intimate with Charlie and Alan, not foolishly trying to tie up Charlie’s mental loose ends through an unnecessary courtroom sequence and an ending that’s the very meaning of copout. Binder is in full panic mode trying to not let the film end on a dispiriting note, but that’s the very appeal of “Reign Over Me:” the hurt and struggle. There’s nothing wrong with bestowing Charlie some hope, but it doesn’t have to feel like an outtake from “Laverne & Shirley” to accomplish such a small feat.Rating: B