In 2002, funny-man Adam Sandler made a memorable turn in a more serious role, Barry Egan in Paul Thomas Anderson’s oddball dark comedy, Punch Drunk Love. Though, the movie had its share of critics- people either loved it or hated it- Sandler’s role was widely accepted as powerful and arresting, and certainly a surprise from the man who made a name for himself in “Happy Gilmore,” “The Waterboy,” and “Billy Madison.” However, the fact that the role was a more dramatic one turned many of his fans away. The movie wasn’t much of a success at the box office and it seemed that most movie goers simply weren’t willing to accept the former Saturday Night Live star as anything more than a high school drop out turned third grader, Bob Barker-beating golfer, loser turned quarterback, take it to the man, side splitter. Viewers want to laugh at him, that is all. And that is a mistake. Along with Punch Drunk Love, Sandler’s most recent release, “Reign Over Me,” proves that the man can indeed induce emotional empathy from a darkened theater.
Co-starring Don Cheadle (Crash, Hotel Rwanda), Liv Tyler (Armageddon, Lord of the Rings), and Jada Pinkett Smith (Collateral, Madagascar), Reign Over Me is the story of a man, Charlie Fineman, who lost his wife and three daughters in the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centers. Heartbroken, Fineman lives his life in an attempt to avoid the pain which has thrown itself at him. Instead he embraces solitude and loneliness. He hides behind video games, Chinese food, and monthly remodeling projects. Essentially, he hinds behind the busy-ness and bustle of the New York City streets.
But one late afternoon he bumps into his old college room-mate, Alan Johnson, played by Cheadle. Johnson is a successful dentist with a beautiful home and a beautiful family. However, he feels trapped by the normality and predictability of his mundane lifestyle. Fineman’s disorganized and eccentric personality seems to be the perfect outlet for him and so the two begin to rekindle their old friendship. They drink, they play video games, they rock-out, they go to all night movie marathons. But to Johnson it is clear that Fineman is broken and, as one character puts it, is “experiencing something very profound.” So, he attempts to help his friend as best he can. Fineman, though, doesn’t want to be helped and not only rejects his friend’s kind advances, but does so in angry and sometimes violent expressions of pain. These particular scenes are simultaneously some of the most awkward and emotionally appealing of the entire film.
In the end, both characters are forced to face their shortcomings and accept their lives for what they are.
Reign Over Me, is a movie that asks difficult questions which it doesn’t always answer. But, in some cases that is a good thing. It forces the viewer to engage with the film, the characters, and the emotions. Furthermore, the movie doesn’t answer questions with cheap, cliché answers. We get no simple solutions to Fineman’s pain, nor to Johnson’s discontent. Thus, it is a more realistic representation of life. there are no simple solutions to the problems mankind faces.
Writer/Director Mark Binder does a nice job allowing his actors to act without interference or gimmick. The script is fluid and well paced, though it deals in excess a time or two. The cinematography is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It sets the viewer down in the streets of New York and gives a beautiful tour of the greatest city on earth. We see clearly how Fineman hides behind the stop lights and traffic and houses. The city is as complicated as he is (though paradoxically: whereas the city is complicated and glamorous, Fineman is complicated and broken and lonely. One wonders if perhaps the city is just as lonely as it’s inhabitant. Maybe the true feelings of the city are hidden behind it’s glamour).
Sandler’s performance is the best of his career. There is no question that he can successfully pull off a serious role and I hope that he takes on many more. He looks like a 1970’s Bob Dylan and in many ways is as volatile as Dylan. His is an emotionally charged performance from beginning to end, one which just might be a tear inducer for the truly locked in viewer. Cheadle does a good job as well and is at his best in the more intense conversations with the other actors. He and Sandler are an unlikely pair, but they are completely believable because of the chemistry between the actors. Tyler and Smith do well what is expected of them. And watch out for a memorable cameo from Donald Sutherland.
Reign Over Me isn’t going to be the best movie of the year, and it isn’t going to draw the biggest crowds, but it is a movie with profound and important things to say. Compounded with Sandler, Cheadle, and New York City it is worth seeing. I give it a B+.