Reign Over Me

(2007) ** 1/2 R
128 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Mike Binder. Cast: Don Cheadle, Adam Sandler, Saffron Burrows, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Liv Tyler.

In a time when most American cinemas are clotted with mind-numbing spectacle, a little old-fashioned theatricality—clumsy though it may be—earns a certain amount of goodwill just for effort. The people behind Reign Over Me clearly dug making a movie with offbeat rhythms, one that strives to be true to the complexity of human relationships, and one that acknowledges the equal parts of comedy and tragedy in the bittersweet beverage of existence. For all writer-director Mike Binder offers in Reign Over Me, he also succumbs to niggling artificialities that drain the story of credibility and genuine heft.

The first of these errors in judgement becomes apparent when Adam Sandler appears on screen as Charlie Fineman, a 9/11 widower. Outfitted in peacoat and curly-haired wig, Sandler has been made, unmistakeably, to resemble the freewheelin' Bob Dylan. It's an oddly counterproductive choice to making Sandler's character accessible as a regular Joe transformed by grief. Presumably the scruffy look is meant to suggest Charlie's slide into sartorial apathy, though it has the effect of making Sandler and his character seem like poseurs.

Roughly the first half of Reign Over Me is a smart comedy of modern manners, predicated on the accidental reunion of Fineman with his former dental-school roommate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle). The film's true protagonist, Johnson faces his own set of problems, which he happily sidelines to deal with Fineman. Discovering that Fineman has become socially crippled by PTSD since the deaths of his wife and kids, Johnson slowly ingratiates himself to the peculiar dropout. Their adolescent-styled, middle-aged male bonding is both humorous and poignant, and Binder sums up the theme with an incisively funny debate—staged in Alan's doorway, after bedtime—over whether or not Alan can come out to play without the permission of his wife.

As a warm and quirky comedy of men trying to be men in a post-feminist world, Reign Over Me builds up a nice head of steam. The plot resembles the "fusty buddy meets quirky buddy" paradigm, but Binder makes Charlie a man gripped in emotional quicksand, and the 9/11 drama consumes the picture's second half, with mixed results. That Binder and Sandler dial Charlie's quiet-loud bipolarity up to near-Rain Man proportions doesn't inspire high marks for verisimilitude, but by the time the picture rolls around to Sandler's emotional breakthrough—the Big Moment—he summons the necessary intimacy.

But first Fineman plays video games, listens to his iPod through large stereophonic headphones, and tries not to think about how he ended up in an empty apartment, while Johnson tries not to think about his strained marriage and emasculating workplace politics. The subplot involving a nymphomaniacal patient (Saffron Burrows) begging to give Alan a blowjob turns Binder's masculine focus into a glaring liability; Alan's wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), at least, is sane, though her character remains underserved.

A head-scratching courtroom diversion involving a judge played by Donald Sutherland fails to clarify for the audience its supposed legal merit—perhaps it has none; either way, it's a tortured device to examine the misdirected hurt of yet more characters. The film's one unequivocally magnificent element is Cheadle, proving once again that he deserves to anchor films. While it helps that Alan is the best-written role, Cheadle makes his flaws and his strengths equally relatable and emotionally clear: no small feat.

Binder twice repeats the resolution that Fineman "might just need to find his own way," which is the filmmaker's way of putting the question mark on "The End" after the not-entirely successful efforts of Alan, Charlie's therapist (Liv Tyler), and even the wacky nympho to reintegrate the grief-damaged Fineman. Binder's honesty in this regard is welcome, as is his often charming approach to a story. Finally, though, Reign Over Me is one of those films that's not bad, but good enough to make one wish it were better.

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