A film review by Craig J. Koban
REIGN OVER ME
2007, R, 128 mins.
Charlie Fineman: Adam Sandler / Alan Johnson: Don Cheadle /
Janeane Johnson: Jada Pinkett Smith / Angela: Liv Tyler /
Donna: Saffron Burrows
Directed and written by Mike Binder
A post 9/11 Adam Sandler drama?
Is this someone's idea of a sick joke?
Maybe...and maybe not. The barely recognizable actor and his performance is actually the strongest element of REIGN OVER ME. Watching his work here makes it really easy to be taken in by it to the point where one wants to deem it as Oscar caliber. Certainly, this is Sandler’s most serious and layered character of his career, which – for the most part – has been permeated by one lamebrain and infantile comedy after another. His dramatic resume has been uneven; he was quirky and melancholy in the unforgivably bad PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, but was much more restrained and focused in the very decent James L. Brooks family drama, SPANGLISH.
Now comes Sandler in REIGN OVER ME as a suicidal, widowed New Yorker that had his life unalterably changed directly from the terrible events of 9/11. Having lost his wife and two kids as a result of this decade’s worst calamity he becomes a chronic, bipolar introvert that flies off on violent mood swings one moment and then is a kind little teddy bear of a man then next. His performance is truly a textbook exercise in angered and embittered focus and he is able to effortlessly channel the deep and mournful pain that the man has been suffering through for years. He is completely believable in the part, even when the role is kind of shamefully written for story convenience purposes. When the script needs him to be a loveable sap, he is; when it needs him to be an oppressive loner that should be committed, he is.
All in all, Sandler’s character he is not all that much of a stretch for him. He has played variations of this role in many past films, including his regrettable comedies. You know, that of a laughably goofy doofus that is calm and whispery half the time and then – without provocation – can lash out with verbal tirades and physical violence. Even characters in his most disagreeable films – like HAPPY GILMORE, BILLY MADISON, etc. – share these traits: they’re nice, shy, and congenial when they are not engaging in acts of ferocity against their fellow man. REIGN OVER ME shows us this very typical side to the staple Sandlerian role, but with some obvious tweaks.
Yet, Sandler’s rock-steady and haunting performance in the film is done so well that it makes everything that surrounds it kind of pale in comparison. Ironically, REIGN OVER ME is a shallow, misguided, and horrifically uneven drama in part because of the character Sandler plays. He is such an emotionally tortured man that is prone to fits of panic attacks, maddening anger, and manic outbursts that any sane person alive – after spending ten minutes with him – would know that the right thing to do would have him committed against his will to give him the type of help that he really needs. Alas, REIGN OVER ME is one of those annoyingly manipulative melodramas that desperately yearn for the viewer to connect with Sandler’s pain and empathize with him to the point where you don’t want him institutionalized. This man is a nutcase and certifiable, but the script thinks he is a perfectly decent and needs no anger management or therapy; he just needs to be alone and think things through for himself. His best therapy is no therapy. Yup. Sure. Uh-huh.
That is the Herculean task the film places on the modest viewer: to accept the fact that this utterly crazy man does not need mental help and that seemingly everyone around will also believe that. But…this man is so clinically insane that why anyone would think that he could possibly live on his own and work out his issues by himself is even crazier. At one point a therapist states that she completely disagrees with another’s diagnosis and that Sandler just needs some me-time. C’mon!
I am not sure what’s worse: the fact that the film wants us to buy into its huge leaps in logic or the fact that it uses 9/11 brazenly as a crutch to anchor the story. Other films that have used 9/11 have not felt nearly as sappy and exploitative about the tragedy as REIGN OVER ME does. The death of a family could have happened from any other fictional disaster. But, this film uses 9/11 to help churn out would-be teary-eyed melodrama. In a way, that’s kind of inexcusable. Are we supposed to invalidate one man’s clear-cut mental derangement because – gee whiz – his family died at 9/11?
The character in question is Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler, looking so disheveled that he looks like a spot-on aging Bob Dylan), a former New York dentist that saw his entire life change after 9/11. He had a good practice, a beautiful loving wife, three cute daughters, and a poodle. All of them – including the doggie – were on board one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center. After that day he has completely shut himself off from the world by erecting an impenetrable emotional wall between himself and everyone…and I mean everyone. He has denial and obvious post-traumatic stress symptoms, but his symptoms go beyond what anyone would see as normal or healthy. He refuses to accept the fact that he had a family and was a father and husband and when even one slight hint of the events of September 2001 are mentioned, he just might grab you by the coat collar and beat you senseless. In short, this dude's nuttier than a fruitcake.
Charlie lives alone and has no friends or family, except for his wife’s parents and he wants nothing to do with them. He lives a life of utter solitude, escaping his pain with all-night video game marathons on his giant screen TV (insurance paid him handsomely), lonely drives through New York, and record collecting (he has amassed over 5000 since his family’s death). He also likes movies and especially digs going to all-night Mel Brooks film festivals (who wouldn’t?). He also plays the drums in an underground grunge band. Wait…I thought he was so socially isolated that he could not handle the public? Er…never mind.
What then emerges is one of the most noble-minded – but incredulous – buddy stories in many a moon. One night another practicing dentist, Alan Johnson (the solid and always reliable Don Cheadle) has a chance encounter with Charlie. It seems that Alan and Charlie were old college roommates and Alan heard all about what happened to his past friend. He bumps into him one night, but Charlie sure can’t seem to remember Alan at first. You would think that their first encounter would lead Alan into not wanting to forge a meaningful relationship with the hapless Charlie. After all, he fails to remember him, does not acknowledge the past, and not does he seem willing to talk about it. He comes across as so inescapably creepy and…well…self destructive that you’d think Alan would arrange to get him some help ASAP.
Instead, Alan takes it upon himself to help Charlie out himself. Why? I am not sure. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he leads a life of upper class normalcy with his wife (in a very under-written part, played by the underused Jada-Pinkett Smith) and is drowning in the repetition of his marriage. Maybe there is something about Charlie’s life that appeals to him. He lives by his own rules, has a kick-ass pad with thousands of vintage LP’s, has a killer home theatre system with awesome games like SHADOW OF COLOSSUS, and even has his own recording studio. This the dream buddy of every man that wants to reclaim the freedom of youth.
The film supports all of those theories, but it especially embraces the notion that Alan legitimately cares for Charlie and would do anything – even endanger his marriage – to assist him. Yet, what I can’t figure out is why Alan continues to befriend Charlie when he's…so freakin’ nuts?! At one point Charlie is a decent dude that he can have a drink with, and then next day Charlie is throwing alcohol right in his face, shoving him up against walls, and threatening to kick the hell out of him. At one point he comes to Alan’s practice and nearly trashes the entire place during one of his fits. Oh…but Alan feels pity for this man and thinks that all he needs to do is “get back into the game” and his life will be on a path to success. Yup. Sure. Uh-huh.
I firmly understand what REIGN OVER ME and its writer director, Mike Binder, are trying to say, but I just could not buy how it tries to say it. It wants to be a feel-good, sentimental story of how one decent and kind man goes out of his way to “rescue” a former colleague out of the pits of depression and loneliness. Honestly…I really, really understand its aims. But…for Pete’s sake…I just could not believe the motivation and impulses of Alan to so willfully help a man that he has not seen for years who now appears to be such an unavoidable loose canon. I could not believe that he would continue to look out for Charlie’s best interests when he constantly threatens and abuses him. I could not believe that Alan would continue to alienate his wife and kids by focusing more attention on Charlie and less on them. I could not believe that Alan would also put his job on the line in an effort to back Charlie…and so on and so on.
To make matters even more ridiculous, Binder throws in completely superfluous subplot involving a nymphomaniac (Saffron Burrows) that likes to come to Alan’s office for dental work…and to ask if she can perform oral sex on him. When he refuses, she files a sexual harassment charge against him. When his superiors tell Alan that he must make up with her and continue to serve her as a client, Alan later discovers that she is seeing a therapist that also works in the building (played by Liv Tyler, never convincing in the part). Now, you’d think that Alan would, in turn, think that Tyler has done a terrible job with the deranged chick, but he amazingly believes that she is good enough for Charlie to see.
And then there is another howler: The film boils down to one of those third act court hearings (let’s call them PATCH ADAMS testimonials) where the would-be sympathetic main character is placed in front of the court and must prove that he is sane and should not be punished by going into an asylum. But Charlie is nuts and when an attorney flashes a photo of his family to him in court, he goes irreproachably berserk. Ooooohhh…but Liv Tyler on the stand says that he needs to be left alone; that would be the best therapy. The judge, played in a cameo by Donald Sutherland, nods in agreement at one point.
Gimmie a break.
At face value, REIGN OVER ME starts off well as a honorable and emotional character driven piece about one man’s social isolation after tragedy, but it degrades into such sappy and woefully unbelievable melodrama that you want to throw your fists in the air. Mike Binder has made films about suffering people with addictions in one of 2005’s best films, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, but with REIGN OVER ME he focuses on a character that is so insane that thinking he’s better of without help is…insane. Adam Sandler’s performance as the film’s unhinged and disturbed character is one of the year’s more memorable, but he needed to be in a more sensible script. Instead, the film places this persona around blind fools that mistakenly believe that the best help for this suffering man is to not get him to seek help. Even worse, REIGN OVER ME tastelessly uses 9/11 as a launching pad to tell its story. There is no need to uses that real life disaster to help paint the main character’s pain. Any other accident or disaster could have been used. However, Binder thought it was fitting to use the memory of a past national nightmare to frame his dopey narrative. REIGN OVER ME is a regrettable misfire because of that, and the makers themselves should have been put in straight jackets into manipulating us to believe that a suicidal lunatic should not be put away.