Reign Over Me

Sony Pictures Entertainment

Written and directed by Mike Binder

With Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, and Jada Pinkett Smith

Rated R

As a dramatic actor, Adam Sandler is … well, he’s Adam Sandler. In Reign Over Me, Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a New Yorker whose wife and three daughters died in one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001. Sporting tousled hair and a peacoat — he looks like he just stepped off the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde — Sandler tries to convey the sadness behind a guy who has retreated from his past into a responsibility-free perpetual adolescence. But guttural mumbling aside, he just can’t do it. In a movie with a tragically serious undercurrent, Sandler’s like an eight-year-old playing emotional dress-up in clothes that are way too big for him. He’s a goofball pretending to be serious.

In a sense, that makes him the perfect leading man for writer/director Mike Binder. As a filmmaker, Binder has seemed to fashion his work — from the reunion dramedy Indian Summer through 2005’s The Upside of Anger — after the style of James A. Brooks (Broadcast News, Spanglish). While he’s interested in touching on serious subjects, at heart he’s a sit-com guy who can’t resist a wisecrack. That makes him a filmmaker whose movies are often amusing, but it makes Reign Over Me an incredibly awkward viewing experience — because, in case I hadn’t already mentioned it, he’s using a national tragedy as the backdrop for his punch lines.

The center of the story involves the relationship between Charlie and Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), Charlie’s old roommate from dental school. Now doing cosmetic dentistry for an upscale Manhattan clientele, Alan’s living a vaguely unsatisfying life dealing with overbearing business partners and a wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) he feels smothers him. When he bumps into Charlie on the street after no contact for many years, Alan is aware of the tragedy that has befallen Charlie. But Charlie himself seems completely unaware — in fact, he claims not even to remember Alan, or apparently much of anything that happened longer ago than that morning.

If you weren’t familiar with Binder’s work, and had only heard this was a movie about a 9/11 widower, you might be fairly surprised by Reign Over Me‘s early tone. The musical score plays heavy on the whimsical woodwinds as we watch Alan muddle through a typical day. His receptionist (Paula Newsome) greets patients with deadpan gags; one obviously troubled patient (Saffron Burrows) seems interested in having far more than Alan’s fingers in her mouth. Alan even assails the psychiatrist (Liv Tyler) who practices in his building with thinly-veiled “my friend has a problem” requests for advice. Cheadle rarely gets the chance to show off a facility with comedy, but that’s exactly what he’s playing in his charming performance here: comedy.

Eventually, though, Binder is going to have to make a hard left turn to darker drama, and he barely keeps the vehicle upright in the attempt. He has actually done a effective job of crafting Charlie as a character, with the hobbies and mundane details that occupy his time and his tabula-rasa response to Alan returning to his life. And there’s actually an impressively understated quality to the scene in which Charlie finally speaks to Alan about his family, the only soundtrack provided by music bleeding through Charlie’s ever-present headphones. But the serious drama never completely works — both because Sandler doesn’t have the chops to sell it, and because Binder never seems as committed to it as he does to the lighter stuff.

Perhaps the overriding sensibility that permeates Reign Over Me is lack of control over the material. The film runs 125 minutes, and the final half-hour becomes a long slog towards the necessary resolutions. Maybe that’s because Binder is really a guy who should be making 90-minute light comedy-dramas. Forcing such a weighty subject into his film may be an attempt to give it gravity, but it feels opportunistic. Binder and Adam Sandler could find themselves with a long, fruitful career of collaborations ahead of them if they both stick to what they obviously understand: man-children who make jokes at inappropriate moments.

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