Reign over Me (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Reign Over Me has the best of intentions but, despite its desire to show how the perseverance of a good man can produce profound results, it bungles the attempt. This is a shameless and clumsy tearjerker - a film that inadvertently comes across as exploiting the tragedy of 9/11 in the quest for sappy melodrama. Writer/director Mike Bender has overstretched his ability, crafting a bogus would-be feel-good tale that takes too long where it's going and stops instead of ending. The script is littered with strange contrivances and pointless tangents, and the thespian skills of Adam Sandler are unequal to the task of playing a man whose emotional pain has reduced him to a shell-shocked husk.

Thus far, most movies that have dealt with the events of September 11, 2001 have done so intelligently and respectfully, recognizing that the date alone carries power for the millions who were emotionally impacted by that day. Reign Over Me, however, is an example of the kind of thing that can happen when a director sees this as a way to invest his movie with greater gravity. There's no reason 9/11 has to be built into the movie's premise; any tragedy would suffice. However, by invoking 9/11, Bender has stacked the deck. The resulting movie argues that despite this shameless move, his hand is too weak to play.

For Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), September 11, 2001 was the end to the comfortable life he built for himself and his family. On that day, his wife and three daughters perished when one of the aircraft crashed into the World Trade Center. Since then, he has erected an impenetrable emotional wall around himself, shutting out memories and all but the most rudimentary impulses of living. He spends his days roving Manhattan on a motorized scooter and his nights holed up in his apartment remodeling his kitchen or playing a video game.

Charlie's roommate from dental school, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), encounters him on the New York streets one day and is shocked by his former friend's condition. Not only doesn't Charlie remember Alan but he seems unable to acknowledge any part of his past. Determined to help Charlie, Alan begins the process of forming a bond with the damaged man but it's tough going. Probing certain areas can cause Charlie to fly into a rage and he steadfastly refuses to see a therapist. Worse, Alan's growing obsession with playing the good Samaritan is distancing him from his wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith). Meanwhile, things aren't going well at work. His fellow dentists are treating him like an employee and a patient (Saffron Burrows) has filed a sexual harassment suit against Alan after he refused her offer of oral sex.

The movie tries to chronicle how Alan, through his efforts to help Charlie, re-discovers his own humanity. By persevering when other men might have given up on his misanthropic friend, Alan is rewarded with a greater appreciation of things in life he has taken for granted. Unfortunately, Binder's overly melodramatic approach to the story robs it of power. There are bizarre tangents - the schizoid patient who "threatens" Alan with a blowjob, the therapist (Liv Tyler) who tries ineffectively to help Charlie, and the parents-in-law who want Charlie to acknowledge them.

Reign Over Me's length is also an issue. For about two-thirds of the running time, Charlie is the same miserable individual and his relationship with Alan goes through cycles of repetition. This causes the movie to seem monotonous. Once the "breakthrough" occurs, the pace accelerates and the movie concludes with a rapid and unsatisfying resolution that ties together all the movie's storylines. A little thought after the end credits have rolled reveals what a sham the supposedly "happy" ending is.

With an unkempt appearance that recalls Bob Dylan, Adam Sandler is out of his depth. While there's every indication that Sandler possesses the innate ability to become a capable straight actor, he's not yet at the point where he can carry off a role like this. His inability to present a credible Charlie transforms the character into a caricature and sends the movie spinning out of control. Binder's script isn't the greatest and his direction is not sure-handed, but it's Sandler's performance that sinks the production. Don Cheadle does what he can to counteract the imbalance, but there's a limit to what he can accomplish. Since this is pretty much a two-character piece, none of the supporting players can offer much help (as in the case of Jada Pinkett Smith or Liv Tyler) or do appreciable damage (as in the case of Saffron Burrows, whose embarrassing character belongs in a different film).

Binder's previous feature, The Upside of Anger, offered a dramatically rewarding experience. His intention with Reign Over Me is to try for something deeper, but the result is awkward and disappointing. Tears may be shed during the two big "moments," but the manipulation during those scenes is so evident that for some viewers it will overshadow the sentiment. It's tough to make a good tearjerker - one need look no further than this misfire to understand why.

Reign over Me (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1