Reign Over Me
"Reign Over Me" is the kind of odd film we put in a box and shut the lid tight so it won't get out; it has the qualities of a powerful story we already know in too much detail to respond to once again. And it suffers from being told too slowly and too monotonously to engage us the way it wants to. It's the story of a man named Charlie Fineman, who was once a dentist (Adam Sandler), a man so shattered by losing his wife and children in one of the planes on 9/11 (and their little dog too, in case you weren't affected enough by the wife and kids) - that he's regressed to an almost preverbal state. He clamps headphones on his ears to listen nonstop to '70s and '80s rock - the Pretenders, the Who, Bruce Springsteen - he endlessly remodels his kitchen, plays a nonstop video game in his living room, and rides around New York on his little motorized scooter. It's such a one-note persona that we're quickly bored with it. But then, every once in a while the lid on the box flips open and something unexpected and powerful comes out for a moment to shake us up and give us a little shock of recognition - and then the box shuts up again. It's a maddening film to watch.
We see Charlie through the eyes of his old college roommate and dental school classmate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) who spots him on the street one day but whom Charlie refuses to recognize. Alan pursues Charlie, making him a kind of cause, often coming to the brink of losing his own wife. Alan tries to trick Charlie into going for psychotherapy, which doesn't work; Charlie's catatonia sometimes turns to furious rages, and one of them leads to a commitment hearing.
There's more in the way of incident to "Reign Over Me," but the film's plodding pace and lack of movement make those incidents jut out incongruously from the rest of the film. They seem to come from another film entirely. One of them is a strange subplot in which a patient of Cheadle's offers to perform oral sex on him in the office; another is a repetitious series of encounters Cheadle arranges with a psychiatrist in his office building in which he tries to get free marital advice. Neither one is integrated into the film's main story, and one reason is that it's hard for Cheadle to play a man who's insecure and weak; his film persona is that of a centered, secure human being whom we in the audience can admire. And Sandler turns what should be an empathetic victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into a mumbling, willful child-man. His hair has that wild early-Bob Dylan look, but the authenticity is undercut by the fact that he has a two-day beard throughout the film; if he's shaving anyway, why can't he comb his hair?
The other characters in the film seem to have been dropped in from another movie, including Jada Pinkett Smith as Cheadle's wife, Liv Tyler as the psychiatrist, and Saffron Burrows as her patient. Only Donald Sutherland, as the judge at the commitment hearing, seems to be a part of this film.
I don't want to demean the film; "Reign Over Me" - an old song by the Who - is an honest attempt at a serious film, and Sandler is to be admired for trying to broaden his range. But neither he nor the film are anywhere near as good as his last serious film, "Punch Drunk Love," Paul Thomas Anderson's fascinating fantasy of a broken man. We can only say, better luck next time.