So often in movies, characters never really do the things that real people do in everyday life. We rarely see them at work, listening to music, or playing videogames. When a tragedy occurs in a movie, grief can be overcome quickly with a brief montage. In real life, the healing process is long and involved.
Writer/director Mike Binder uses some of that shorthand in “Reign Over Me” to establish the film’s premise, but then he wisely lets his well-drawn characters do the rest. The most important thing that this smart new drama has going for it is patience, and successful dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) will require plenty of patience indeed to deal with the re-appearance of his old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler).
After losing his wife and three daughters in the 9/11attacks on New York, Charlie has completely withdrawn from everything that reminds him of his old life. Charlie’s regression to dorm room habits allow urban professional Alan, who’s going through a mid-life crisis, just the kind of freedom he yearns for. While Alan needs some “stretching room,” Charlie is looking to connect with someone who has no ties to his family.
As already evidenced in 2002’s “Punch Drunk Love,” Sandler is good at playing the loner who is filled with inner rage. Here, he looks like a younger Bob Dylan with his rumpled coat and kinky wig, and it takes a while for Charlie to really come forward. It is a one-note role at first, as he is a damaged person with tunnel vision and a limited range of emotions. When Alan stops him on the street, Charlie doesn’t register even a glimmer of recognition. Sandler grows into the role, however, and is convincing, particularly later in the movie when more of his motives are revealed.
Cheadle, on the other hand, is nothing short of dazzling—an enigmatic and sympathetic leading man with a quick-witted sense of humor. Even when he is put in unlikely situations—a subplot with one of his dental patients seems both far-fetched and a little convenient—Cheadle handles them with such a sure sense of his character that it smoothes out the movie’s rougher edges. It is also nice to seem him in charming regular guy mode after the heaviness of “Hotel Rwanda” and the gloomy pretentiousness of “Crash.”
Once Charlie and Alan re-kindle their relationship, “Reign Over Me” moves forward in some surprisingly funny and poignant directions. Nothing seems forced. Alan gives Charlie an unbelievable amount of leeway after his outbursts and general bad behavior, but it is not solely because he is out on a mission to heal him. Where Binder’s script strikes its most interesting chord is with the honesty that it displays towards Alan. He has a beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), a great job and family, but he still needs Charlie to show him what it all is worth.
Much time is spent on Charlie’s obsessions, so we see him literally battling his own personal demon in a videogame. He shows Alan how to play. They argue over musical tastes. Charlie drops by at work. There are no grand set pieces or misunderstandings that elevate the stakes. Binder stays focused on his characters.
It could have gone wrong so many times, but there are confrontations so real that anything could happen. Despite its typical male-bonding set-up, it is impossible to map out where “Reign Over Me” is headed. Just when you think he is skirting dangerously close to cliché, Binder navigates away from it. Psychiatric help would probably benefit both men, but that is not viewed as some sort of cure-all. Also, at one point it looks as if the film will devolve into a typical courtroom drama. Again, the script bares its teeth in the most unexpected of moments, as a surly judge (Donald Sutherland in a role barely more than a cameo) squashes any further idea of a resolution that is too conventional.
Charlie’s wounds are deep, and no amount of tenderness will ever heal him completely. “Reign Over Me” is smart enough to give us a glimpse of a long process, and do it with a much-needed sense of humor. Seeing these people do real things in a real environment only further endears these men to us, and two hours with Alan and Charlie is time well-spent.