It’s inevitable that comedians reach a point in their careers when they want to be taken seriously as actors or thinkers or writers or anything other than the guy who got rich making poop jokes. Robin Williams spent two decades crawling his way up from birthing Jonathan Winters on a not-that-great sitcom to earning an Oscar for teaching Matt Damon how to be a man, which is probably the gold standard of career trajectories; so far, Jim Carrey hasn’t managed to shed his manic past personas by pretending to be overly serious, and Tim Allen even tried his hand at metaphysics to atone for “Home Improvement.” (Keep trying.) Given all that, it was inevitable that Adam Sandler, who started out making weird noises on MTV and then “Saturday Night Live,” would make his try for the brass ring of dramatic credibility. For the most part, he’s succeeded, turning in surprisingly watchable performances in Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish, his two previous “serious” outings to date. But if drama thrives on honesty, then Sandler’s most honest work so far has been in The Wedding Singer, which required him not to do a goofy voice (most of the time, anyway) or wear a wig but to fall in love, and to win the audience’s sympathy by portraying a realistic character going through something real. Writer-director Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me elevates Sandler to a new level and coaxes out of him one or two moments of genuine power, but for the most part, there’s something artificial about the film, almost otherworldly, that keeps it from resonating completely: Sandler’s mouth may be saying all the right words, but his eyes are like empty glass.
The film opens to Graham Nash’s “Simple Man” as Charlie Fineman (Sandler) glides on his scooter through the darkened streets of New York City at night. Binder sets the mood right away as one of emotionally self-aware drama with Charlie’s cruises through town listening to classic rock, then transitions to Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a well-to-do dentist who, despite being married, keeps attracting the attentions of his prettier female patients. One of them, Donna (Saffron Burrows), at one point offers to perform oral sex right there in the office; the flustered Alan, to his credit, remains true to his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith). Driving home one day, Alan sees Charlie walking down the sidewalk and attempts to flag him down. It turns out they were college roommates, but they’ve long since fallen out of touch. Recounting his sighting of Charlie to his family over dinner, Alan’s oldest daughter asks, “Is he the man whose family was on the plane?” There’s no further explanation given or needed in modern American society, especially in a New York story, and suddenly it all becomes clear: Charlie’s wife and kids are gone, dead since Sept. 11, 2001. Drawing its title from the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” Reign Over Me has to be one of the first, if not the first, film to deal with Sept. 11 without actually dealing with it, which is the beginning of its paradox: The death of Charlie’s family and the unspooling plot has no tie to Sept. 11 other than that it’s a guaranteed way to create a situation pre-loaded with a certain kind of emotion. But more on that later.
Alan runs into Charlie a few weeks later on the street, but Charlie doesn’t remember him at all, and in fact seems to be suffering from a learning or developmental disorder and not just the posttraumatic stress that’s been implied. Alan persuades him to go for coffee, after which they head back to Charlie’s to hang out. Charlie’s apartment is a spare wreck, with the kitchen that’s constantly being remodeled serving as a half-clunky metaphor for Charlie’s inability to repair his life and the hooks on the walls serving as a subtle reminder of the family photos that used to hang there. Charlie’s obsessed with the PlayStation 2 game “Shadow of the Colossus,” about a man trying to slay giants (wow, another metaphor), and draws Alan into his emotionally regressed world.
Alan eventually becomes attached enough to want to save Charlie, or see him get some help, despite his wife’s protestations that Alan’s assistance is both unwanted and futile. Alan even enlists the help of a psychiatrist who shares his office building, Angela (Liv Tyler), to try and get Charlie some help. But Binder’s script takes plenty of time getting there, opting to pull Charlie and Alan through a parallel series of hurdles but not really investing the minor obstacles with any real consequence. Alan, oddly enough, feels superficially similar to Chris Rock’s character in I Think I Love My Wife in that he’s begun drifting from his spouse without knowing why. There’s so much missing here that would provide clues as to why Alan is starting to feel restless with his home life, especially since one of the other dentists in his office tells Alan to get rid of the stalker Donna so that what happened “last time” doesn’t happen again. Last time? Did Alan cheat on his wife with a patient? Was he tempted to? If Binder knows, he didn’t feel like writing it down, and Alan goes from being a man with depth to a messianic placeholder who just wants to save Charlie for old times’ sake.
Sandler is engaging as Charlie, and actually courageous enough to be frustratingly trapped by his own damaged psyche. But his performance feels gimmicky until the scene in which he recounts his version of Sept. 11, and how he misses his family. Binder and editors Steve Edwards and Jeremy Roush keep the cutting to a minimum, focusing instead on Charlie’s face as he weeps and exhumes his memories while Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night” plays over the headphones permanently draped around Charlie’s neck. It’s fair to say that Sandler has never filmed a more moving scene than this one in which Charlie’s heart breaks all over again for the family he lost more than five years before. But here’s where Binder’s film loses traction on the slippery slope of evocation and manipulation. Any writer or director dealing with the largest foreign terrorist attack in recent memory has a responsibility to discuss the event itself and at least justify the use of Sept. 11 as a plot point. Binder’s politics are hidden at best: Alan’s secretary has a “01.20.09” bumper sticker affixed to her wall, but that’s the only hint of partisanship or real-world commentary in the film. Binder’s inability to use the tragic events of that day as a springboard into anything else keep the film from being the reflective modern drama it wants to be and instead make it simply manipulative. If Charlie’s family had died in a car wreck, or been gunned down by a madman, or been killed by a burglar, the story would be the same. What’s more, the viewer would have to rely on the characters themselves to draw them into the story and not just the collective subconscious pain we as a country and audience associate with September 2001. There’s an honest film somewhere inside Reign Over Me; I just wish I could’ve seen it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Won't Get Fooled Again
Film Reviews | March 24, 2007 | Comments ()