March 24, 2007

MOVIES: Reign Over Me (Mike Binder, 2007)

Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle are one of the most unlikely pairs of co-stars we've seen in a while, but both do top-notch work here, making for a fine movie about how we cope with unspeakable grief and horror.

The horror is 9/11, with which all of the movie's New York characters are still dealing in one way or another. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) has become distant and reclusive; his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) has become more obsessed with controlling her family and keeping them safe. Combine those two dynamics, and you've got a relationship in trouble.

Their problems pale, though, in comparison to those of Charlie Fineman (Sandler), whose wife and three daughters were on one on the planes. Since their deaths, he's withdrawn almost entirely from the world, hiding in his apartment where he plays video games and listens to his favorite old records.

Alan and Charlie were college roommates, but haven't seen each other in many years; when they run into one another, Charlie's inability to interact with the world is so extreme that he at first doesn't even recognize Alan. But the two men do resume their friendship. Alan is grateful for a relationship that gets him out of the house and away from Janeane, and Charlie has someone to talk to who never knew -- and therefore won't always be asking about -- his family.

This is the most serious dramatic role Adam Sandler has taken on, and his performance is a revelation. He doesn't resort to any of his comic "love me, please" tricks, and he shows us all of the pain and anger that Charlie keeps hidden. It's a difficult role, filled with abrupt mood swings; there's one monologue that could easily have wallowed in bathos and sentimentality, but Sandler delivers it with heartbreaking sincerity.

He's helped immensely by having an actor of Cheadle's caliber to play against; their relationship is always convincing, and they rise above the more obvious "wounded people heal one another" elements of the story.

The script doesn't quite rise to the level of its actors; the final act dives headlong into the cliches that had generally been avoided until then, and a character played by Saffron Burrows is introduced in so spectacularly unsavory a fashion that it's very hard to go along when the movie later tries to make her more sympathetic.

But those are small flaws when compared to all of the things that the movie does right, and the two central performances are so superb that I've no qualms about recommending the movie.

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