March 22, 2007

Reign Over Me

Sandler steps up to nearly redeem scattershot 9/11 postlude

By R. Emmet Sweeney

Reign Over Me, director Mike Binder's mournful 9/11 postlude, is a failure worth grappling with; deep wells of fury and compassion are secreted beneath its scattershot narrative. Ably avoiding redemptive clichés, Binder, who also wrote the screenplay, confronts the specter of loss with frankness, but is unable to sketch characters that live up to his ideas, resorting to cheap psychology that reduces them to manipulative tools of the theme. The actors have to fill in the emotional gaps Binder leaves open, and Adam Sandler steps up to give his most nuanced and affecting portrait to date.

Charlie Fineman (Sandler) is an intensely interior shut-in, forever scarred by the loss of his wife and children on 9/11. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a college roommate of Fineman, runs into him on the street and tries to strike up the friendship again, soon discovering a man in painful denial. Fineman refuses to acknowledge that his family ever existed, and retreats into a haze of Bob Seger and PlayStation 2 (Sony's Shadow of the Colussus gets more screen time than Cheadle). While Johnson tries to shepherd Fineman to a therapist (the winsome Liv Tyler), he also deals with his rote mid-life crisis, crystallized in the absurd figure of Saffron Burrows, a nympho-divorcée who threatens to break up his dental practice and marriage in one well-proportioned swoop. The only respite in Alan's story is in the person of Paula Newsome, who plays his secretary with acid wit and superb rapid-fire timing.

Fineman's character is overloaded with obsessions and tics, ripe for analysis: He endlessly remodels his kitchen, never takes off his headphones and maniacally collects classic rock vinyl. The script reduces him to a series of easily explainable neuroses, and when each is solved, voilà: behold a man reborn. Yet the film cannot be so easily dismissed, mainly due to the bravura performance from Sandler, who imbues his straw man with tremors of grief so great they transcend the flimsiness of his character.

This becomes clear two-thirds of the way through the film, when Fineman unburdens himself to Alan outside of Tyler's office. In close-up, Sandler recites a litany of details from his lost life (from birthmarks to in-jokes) in a brittle voice, every word nearly swallowed with regret for having let it out. In an extraordinary bit of muscle control, with his face about to collapse in sorrow, Sandler subtly snaps his head down, biting off the tears and composing himself enough to walk out the door. It's a scene that obliterates the rest of the movie. Everything afterward -- including domestic reconciliations and courtroom melodrama -- registers as a listless coda after its impact.

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