Reign Over Me (2007) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexual references
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Adam Sandler, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Melinda Dillon, Donald Sutherland, Robert Klein, Mike Binder, Ted Raimi
Director: Mike Binder
Screenplay: Mike Binder
I seem to remember liking this film back when it was called The Fisher King. Of course, that was with Terry Gilliam directing and Robin Williams, who actually has what it takes to play funny, crazy and serious in a convincing manner, at the forefront. Director Mike Binder (Man About Town, The Upside of Anger) and star Adam Sandler (Click, The Longest Yard) aren't as highly imaginative or inspired as those prodigious comedic thinkers, as Reign Over Me proves to be one of the more wildly inconsistent ambitious dramedies to emerge this year.
Don Cheadle (Ocean's Twelve, After the Sunset) stars as dentist Alan Johnson, who one day discovers his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), traversing around town on his motorized scooter. Charlie has been suffering from extreme grief after the deaths of his wife and daughters in the September 11th, 2001, World Trade Center terrorist attacks, and to say he is out of sorts would be an understatement. He has all but completely shut himself off from the world, using his headphones to cancel out what he doesn't want to hear, especially when his in-laws or others try to get him to open up about anything involving his life prior to the tragedy.
While Charlie has given up dentistry, Alan is into it up to his eyeballs, with pressures becoming exceedingly great when a mentally-unstable patient makes advances on him, gets rebuffed, and threatens him with a sexual harassment lawsuit. The home front also becomes difficult, as Alan is spending an inordinate amount of time with Charlie, trying to help his old friend, while the by-product exists of enjoying a bit of freedom he hasn't had for years. As the two get reacquainted as friends, Alan repeatedly attempts to help Charlie confront what has been holding him back for years, but Charlie only explodes whenever he sniffs out an intrusion into his private thoughts.
Writer-director Mike Binder's post-9/11 seriocomic story about the trauma caused in the aftermath of the killings is ambitious, but heavily mired by contrivances and casting problems galore. Starting with the most glaring, though Sandler performed quite well before in a mainly serious role for P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, his take on distraught, angst-filled Charlie Fineman shows him laboring for emotional depth all too often, and coming up empty. When he has to be funny, he usually nails it, but during the several scenes where he must bare his soul in a heart-wrenching way, momentum fizzles as you watch him reach deep down for emotions that never come -- he just gets sullen, nasal, and whispers almost incoherently.
Meanwhile, I'll say what other critics probably won't: Don Cheadle, a much better actor, and I will easily buy that some women find him attractive (probably because he is Don Cheadle, mostly), but as portrayed in this film, he has a history of women, especially his female patients, constantly throwing themselves at him. They don't even want him for his money either, or his personality (they haven't gotten to know him, really). They have to get their freak on with this sexy beast of a man at any cost. Don Cheadle, as fine an actor as he may be, is not Denzel Washington, George Clooney, or Jude Law -- few among us are. Rumors have it that the roles given to Sandler and Cheadle were originally cast with Javier Bardem and Tom Cruise, respectively, and in both cases, the results would probably have made much more sense from the standpoint of the characterizations. Without the necessary authenticity, the resulting story comes off as phony and manipulative, which, in such a profound, soul-searching drama, is a fatal impediment to success.
Add to the questionable casting the further weaknesses in needless supporting roles. The worst example is that of Donna Remar (Burrows, Perfect Creature), the woman who so desperately wants to go down on Alan. Her role is not only needless (perhaps contrived only to give Charlie his only potential chance at happiness -- a woman almost as screwed up as he is), but any scene she is in is neither funny nor important. And speaking of contrivances, her involvement brings forth the biggest: both Donna and Charlie not only heavily impact Alan Johnson's life at the same time, but they also happen to see the exact same shrink later, and then they show up at Alan's job at the same time as well. Never mind the fact that casting a stunning, statuesque beauty in the role that has her begging to give free blow jobs seems hard to swallow (so to speak), with an equally implausible decision to give Liv Tyler (Lonesome Jim, Jersey Girl) the savvy, shrewd shrink role. We want to work with Binder here, but why must he make it so hard for us to take these characters at face value?
Then there are the needless subplots, of which the sexual harassment suit is just one. Equally clumsy is the injection of the partners in the dentist outfit, who chide Alan for getting himself into trouble that he needs to get out of. There are the tenacious in-laws who keep needling Charlie to overcome his grief by practically coercing him into a mental breakdown. There is the overdone court hearing to determine Charlie's mental stability that proves to go absolutely nowhere, except to give supporting star Donald Sutherland (Beerfest, Pride & Prejudice) another useless role as the hard-ass judge who can see through it all. Even Alan's home life with his wife, who seems far more reasonable and supportive than Alan ever gives her credit for, never bears the proper thematic fruit to justify so much constant drawing of our attention to it. Contrary to what people have been praising the film for, Reign Over Me isn't about overcoming grief by facing one's innermost demons as much as it is about struggling with the annoyances of home, work, marriage, family, and friendships. Binder's scattershot approach leaves little way to read all of these incessant subplots except to state that Alan envies Charlie for his heartbreaking tragedy, as he has no more wife, no kids, no job, and barely a home to call his own. If only he could get his stuff together mentally, life would be peachy.
The idea behind Reign Over Me, at least from the post-9/11 coping angle, isn't a bad one. It certainly would be a worthwhile drama to showcase how a grieving father valiantly prevails over the loss of his loved ones in the cataclysmic tragedy that was the World Trade Center. Certainly, my heart would cry out seeing the anguish and feeling the angst that such a horrible loss would naturally provoke in a father and husband. However, just as certainly, the families of loved ones lost deserve a much more honest, less-manipulative treatment than the muddled, gag-filled formula that Binder hashes up here. Binder tries to be life-affirming and spiritually uplifting, but, more often than not, his film comes across as overly quirky and irritating, if not in subject matter, in execution.
Reign Over Me does have moments when things more or less coalesce into something interesting or profound, but not often enough for me to be able to give it a wholehearted recommendation. The best thing I can say is that it isn't lazy or out-and-out whoring for Oscar nominations. However, it's also not consistent enough in tone or as focused in thematic impetus to merit false praise just because it wraps itself up around the September 11th tragedy. Charlie's loss and inability to cope stems much more out of losing his loved ones, period; the 9/11 situation is only germane because it is readily identifiable and still resonant in the American psyche, but really, it could have been about any tragedy to produce the same situation (The Fisher King's viscerally repugnant, traumatic depiction of a death of a loved one seems much more genuine in explaining how a man's sanity could unravel so completely).
Perhaps as a pointed allegory of how America continues to try to hold back the discussion about 9/11, using Charlie as the everyman vessel by which we can all identify as a nation and inspire us to begin to heal the wounds through catharsis, this could have had a chance to being the kind of great film worthy of sincere applause. Sadly, 9/11 is merely used as a means to an end here, with Binder more concerned about quirky character distractions, like blow jobs at work, Charlie's obsessions with records and video games, and late night Mel Brooks marathons. Sure, it's all about escaping one's problems, but the film itself refuses to deal with its own issues with tact or conviction, distracting us with gags and more subplots rather than get to the real heart of the matter until it's too late to discern what it's really about any longer. How much genuine feeling are we supposed to possess over characters and plotlines that are as far from genuine as a penetrating examination of the aftermath of a real-world catastrophe should ever be?
©2007 Vince Leo