Movies are supposed to move, enlighten or entertain. Reign Over Me starts out as entertaining. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is a dentist who seemingly lives the good life until he reunites with his old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), who is practically catatonic years after the death of his wife. Cheadle and Sandler are both exceptional actors, and it's their fine performances here that, half-way through the film, cause a lump in your throat, watery eyes—and you’re moved.
Although he knew Charlie lost his family in the 9/11 tragedy, Alan hasn’t seen his friend in years. One day while leaving work, he sees a disheveled Charlie riding a scooter down the street. The next time he spots Charlie, he stops him, but Charlie hardly recognizes his old pal. Alan is aghast and immediately realizes Charlie needs help.
Maybe it's a matter of quilt. Alan has a successful business. His wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) is wonderful and a great mother to their three kids. They live a comfortable lifestyle but something is missing, and Alan sees Charlie as his escape from the monotony.
Jada Pinkett Smith
Charlie received insurance money from the accidents, so he has no financial problems, but his apartment is sparse. He owns a drum set, a couch and a large TV set. He spends the majority of his time in front of the latter as an obsessed gamer. There's also his kitchen, which he's remolding, but he's changed the design again and again. His landlord (Rae Allen) has become like a guardian, warding off anyone wanting something from Charlie, which includes even his former in-laws who don't understand the depths of his despair.
When Alan and Charlie begin to just "kick it" – spend time scootering around New York City, eating Chinese food at three in the morning, or playing music together, it's this away-from-home time that becomes a problem. Janeane complains to Alan, telling him he's physically present in their home, but not emotionally there.
Saffron Burrows, Liv Tyler, Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle
There's a silly plotline that introduces the character of Donna Remar (Saffron Burrows) as one of Alan's patients who becomes sexually obsessed with him. It makes no sense and feels arbitrarily thrown in. Alan finally gets her into therapy with Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler), a therapist in his building. Alan also convinces Charlie to start seeing Angela, although he rarely communicates with her during his visits.
Mike Bender and Adam Sandler
Mike Bender (The Upside of Anger), the writer, director and actor who has a small role in the movie, got the idea for this story when roaming the streets of New York after 9/11 and again a few years later when he wondered about the lives of those who lost people in the tragedy.
"I always wanted to write a story about friendship," said Bender. "Every one of us needs a friend to help us through the tough times. This whole movie is about communication – two men who, together, learn to start talking."
Cheadle can bring the most complex characters to life. He received an Academy-Award nomination for his role as the Rwandan hero in Hotel Rwanda, yet can play comedic roles just as well as he's proved in Ocean's Eleven and Twelve. In Reign Over Me, Cheadle clearly makes the viewer understand his personal crisis and his journey to work through it.
Sandler has become one of Hollywood's most popular and talented comics. From Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer to Click, he really makes us laugh. Sandler can also play a humorless role like the one in Spanglish, and Reign Over Me sets a new level for the range of his dramatic abilities. Although the Charlie character does get a little tedious in the middle of the film, this seems more a script problem than an acting obstacle. Sandler plays his distraught, deeply saddened character with passion and total believability, and his keen sense of humor shows up in small doses that highlight his character's challenges even more.
The unpredictable Reign Over Me does get a tad boring midway through, but it's an emotional film with clear messages about none of us having perfect lives. Sometimes it's a close friendship that provides the life jacket to keep us afloat.
Photo credits: Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures