Reign Over Me

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Writer-director Mike Binders ambitious but wobbly executed comedy-drama Reign Over Me ultimately feels more like a disjointed collection of ideas and moods than a wholly heartbreaking tale of friendship and connection. In a rare serious role, Adam Sandler again shows that he can stretch beyond his typical broad-comedy performances, but unfortunately his character is not defined strongly enough for his impressive dramatic turn to have impact.

Alan (Don Cheadle) is a successful Manhattan dentist, happily married with two daughters. However, his seemingly terrific existence has a gnawing void in the center–he feels unappreciated at his dental practice, and his home life has become a dull routine.
Unable to understand what could be missing, he unexpectedly runs into Charlie (Sandler), his college roommate whom he hasnt seen for years.

While Alan is thrilled to reunite with his old friend, Charlie, disheveled and distant, doesnt seem to recognize him. Charlie lost his wife and three children when they died aboard one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. As Alan quickly realizes, Charlie has yet to recover from the devastating emotional blow. Basically an overgrown child hiding in the safety of his iPod–in order to forget the tragedy–Charlie will not speak of his familys death; he becomes shockingly violent whenever the subject comes up.

Despite Charlies occasionally prickly demeanor, Alan finds him to be a welcome relief from his high-stress career and staid marriage. At the same time, Alan wonders if he should find Charlie psychiatric help so that he can begin to come to terms with his repressed memories.

As demonstrated by his 2005 effort The Upside of Anger, Binder is a filmmaker who enjoys shaping his narratives around central characters who hide bruised spirits underneath intimidating surfaces. In both films, comedy and drama interweave throughout the scenes, sometimes without warning, which imbues the proceedings with an unpredictable, lifelike quality.

That said, though, Reign Over Me often feels emotionally schizophrenic. Binder is on steadier ground when focusing on the drama of Charlies mental problems, but the moments of comic relief come across as forced, or simply unfunny. In particular, running jokes about Alans workplace problems–including a receptionist with an attitude (Paula Newsome) and a sexually aggressive patient (Saffron Burrows)–have a whiff of sitcom desperation to them, bringing up bad memories of Binders short-lived, sometimes misogynistic HBO series The Mind of the Married Man.

Moreover, beyond tonal inconsistency, Binder also fails to justify his contrived reunion of two former friends who must try to fashion a new relationship in light of Charlies instability. While Charlies desire to be with Alan is understandable–the haunted man desperately needs human contact–Alans decision to keep hanging out with Charlie is problematic.

Reign Over Me tries to suggest that uptight, unhappy Alan needs Charlies volatile personality to help him break out of his routine. But considering that Alan has children and a wife at home, going out with Charlie on all-night adventures feels selfish rather than therapeutic. Binder intentionally keeps Alans motivations murky so that the audience will wonder what deep-seated discontent is eating away at him, but the eventual revelations arent significant enough to justify his thoughtless behavior. In addition, because Charlie occasionally becomes verbally or physically abusive with him, Alans unwavering loyalty to an old friend–no matter the unspeakable tragedy that has befallen him–seems farfetched.

Despite its crippling problems, the movie remains involving due to the two lead performers. Adam Sandler showed great promise as a dramatic actor while playing the unhinged romantic antihero of Paul Thomas Andersons Punch-Drunk Love. His role in Reign Over Me is cut from similar cloth, as he again portrays a vulnerable yet incredibly angry and hurt malcontent who could snap at any given moment. Both performances suggest that Sandler can bring intensity to deranged characters. Such roles arent all that different from his comedic turns, where he usually plays slightly disturbed, immature men.

Sandler has no problem negotiating Charlies merry-go-round of emotions, going from sweet to petulant to mournful with ease. But Sandler is undermined by Binders simplistic construction of the character, which imagines him as a wounded puppy immersed in video games and albums from his college years as a way of escaping tortured memories. Sandler lends the character a bittersweet dignity, but his writer-director sees Charlie more as a metaphor for post-9/11 grieving, never quite penetrating the heart of this suffering soul.

Cheadle gives a characteristically strong performance, but as with his treatment of Charlie, Binder cant keep from making Alan a bit of a clich. As the typically overstressed, discontent, affluent family man, Alan predictably needs to learn how to let loose, have some fun, and tell his wife he loves her in order to be happy. Cheadle makes Alan sympathetic as he journeys along these overly familiar character beats, but he seems uncomfortable handling the scripts awkward comedic elements.

Near the end of Reign Over Me, Binder uncomfortably shifts tone one last time, moving away from a character study of mismatched friends toward a courtroom drama as the future of one of the men hangs in the balance. “Reign Over Me painfully overreaches at the finale, when it tries to find the right note of cautious optimism. The whole movie appears to be doomed by the same problem: Mike Binder works so hard to include all the warring emotions of real life that he forgets to make sure his story is realistic.

Credits

Running time: 126 minutes

Director: Mike Binder
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media, Madison 23 Productions, Sunlight Productions
US distribution: Columbia Pictures
Producers: Jack Binder, Michael Rotenberg
Executive Producers: Jack Giarraputo, Lynwood Spinks
Co-producer: Rachel Zimmerman
Screenplay: Mike Binder
Cinematography: Russ Alsobrook
Editors: Steve Edwards, Jeremy Roush
Production Design: Pipo Wintter
Music: Rolfe Kent

Cast

Charlie (Adam Sandler)
Alan (Don Cheadle)
Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith)
Angela (Liv Tyler)
Donna (Saffron Burrows)
Jonathan (Robert Klein)
Ginger (Melinda Dillon)
Judge Raines (Donald Sutherland)
Bryan (Mike Binder)
Melanie (Paula Newsome)