A professional man vaguely dissatisfied with his life is changed for the better when he reconnects with an old friend who’s far worse off in this highly calculated movie from Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”). “Reign Over Me”—yet another example of an old rock song providing a movie title—is a manipulative male-bonding dramedy that’s hobbled by the questionable casting of Adam Sandler in a pivotal role and use of a national tragedy to give it emotional resonance.
The “everyman” of the narrative is Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a well-heeled NYC dentist with a lovely wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and two teen daughters. But he feels stifled by his home life, and his office situation is troubled by unsupportive colleagues and a patient named Donna Remar (Saffron Burrows), who not only comes on to him but then brings suit for sexual harassment when he refuses her. It’s while in the midst of this not-quite mid-life crisis that Johnson bumps into his old dental school roommate Charlie Fineman (Sandler), who essentially fled from reality after losing his wife and three daughters in one of the 9/11 planes. Living off government subsidies and insurance payments but refusing to cope with their deaths by simply shutting out all unpleasant memories, he spends his days—and nights—travelling about on a motor scooter, playing video games in his apartment, repeatedly renovating his kitchen (as his wife had asked him to do), attending movie marathons, jamming on the drums at a nearby bar and obsessively collecting old LP albums, while studiously avoiding any contact with his grieving in-laws Ginger and Jonathan Timpleman (Melinda Dillon and Robert Klein), whose insistence that he join them in trying to reach some kind of closure further traumatizes him.
Alan is drawn into Charlie’s surrealistically detached world both by a need to help his old buddy confront his past and by a half-conscious longing to escape his own present troubles. To that end he enlists the help of sympathetic psychologist Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler). But in the process he threatens to alienate his own family and to push Charlie so hard that the man might lose control entirely and suffer a breakdown that would allow his in-laws to have him committed. The script culminates in a courtroom confrontation over Charlie’s mental condition before stern but sensitive Judge Raines (Donald Sutherland) and breakthroughs, of a limited sort, for both Fineman and Johnson.
There’s a synthetic, borderline cloying quality to all this that has a whiff of television bathos about it, not least in the legal business at the close (which comes awfully close to the sort of thing Frank Capra would have committed), but also in all of the overly easy resolutions of the last act, in which not only Charlie and Alan are redeemed but Ginger, Jonathan and Donna as well. But there are deeper problems with the movie. One is the casting. Cheadle is very good as the conflicted Johnson, but while Sandler works very hard, he never really disappears into Charlie or effaces memories of the Saturday Night Live funnyman. Too often there’s a standup-routine quality to his performance. The rest of the cast do what’s expected of them, with Sutherland in particular adding a noble note, but Tyler, Klein, Dillon and even Burrows in the end go too far into weepy mode. (Writer-director Binder himself plays a minor part as Fineman’s friend and financial advisor, and he’s adequate.)
The other problem, about which people will certainly disagree, is the decision to tie Fineman’s traumatic stress syndrome to 9/11. Any tragedy in which Charlie’s family was lost would have fit the narrative needs equally well—a car crash, for instance. The choice of 9/11 seems pretty arbitrary—and one has to ask why Binder elected to use it. To universalize the man’s pain? (But any accident would have done that.) To suggest that we’ve all been traumatized by 9/11? (But that’s manifestly untrue.) Or was it merely an authorial decision to feed off the natural response the viewer will have to any mention of the disaster of that day? If the latter, there’s a crassness about it that’s a bit disturbing in this faintly melodramatic context.
“Reign Over Me” is certainly well made (with the seriousness accentuated by the fact that Sandler’s company is here called “Mr. Madison Productions” instead of “Happy Madison”), and there’s little doubt that it will be very successful, just as “The Pursuit of Happyness,” with Jada’s husband Will, was last year. It too suits the audience’s desire for some supposedly heart-wrenching but actually comfortable tear-jerking complete with a spuriously easy resolution. It’s ultimately a maudlin movie, not nearly as challenging as it purports to be. That’s where the basic problem with the picture lies.