Reign Over Me
Casting Adam Sandler as an ex-dentist who lost his family in the World Trade Center is probably going to leave his fans scratching their heads. But Reign Over Me does much more than pump up Sandler's acting credentials. Sandler's spasmodically violent, semiautistic persona--at least the one that blossomed in Punch-Drunk Love--manages, with a little tweaking, to come as close to defining posttraumatic 21st-century America as anything this reviewer has seen.
Director Mike Binder doesn't beat the idea with a gong. Charlie Fineman (Sandler) isn't exactly an everyman figure. Before the planes hit, he was a well-off, gregarious midtown Manhattan dentist with a cute wife, but his family and his previous life are left in the WTC's ashes. Binder doesn't expect you to hop onto that roller coaster in traditional boilerplate fashion. The phrase "September 11" or "World Trade Center" never get uttered by name; there are no flashbacks, and, though he teases us with the possibility, there are no late-night trips to ground zero.
Instead, at the outset we hop with Charlie onto a scooter, which starts winding through Lower Manhattan's darkened streets. He gets flagged down by an old friend, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), who hasn't seen him since the tragedy. As the ultimate empath, Alan begins with the transparently virtuous goal of helping his old friend confront his loss.
Watching Cheadle's character get slowly absorbed in his friend's world gives Reign its subtle dynamic. The two transform back into college buddies, with all their latent obsessions, and peripheral characters remain respectfully in the background. Jada Pinkett Smith is a slightly annoying, high-maintenance presence as Alan's wife. Liv Tyler has an interesting turn as a somewhat zoned-out therapist who manages a sultry "thank you" when Charlie compliments her tits. Donald Sutherland gets to flex his eyebrows as a white-maned judge.
But in the end, it's a movie about friendship. As Alan wanders into Charlie's life, Binder's camera maneuvers relentlessly for Charlie's peephole. It doesn't come easily. Binder moves in and out of focus, staring at characters' faces with an infectious fascination. With his shaggy, slightly gray hair and worn features, Sandler channels a besieged Bob Dylan: annoyed and fascinated with the sudden attention, dropping enigmatic zingers and occasionally cutting remarks.
But it won't work if you're not willing to go at the 20-mph pace of Charlie's scooter. Following the buddy-movie template, Reign is a deliberate, serpentine journey out from under the wreckage. Five years after Sept. 11, Charlie is trying to remember who he was before the shit hit the fan. Binder has gone this route before (The Upside of Anger), but he manages to raise the stakes without losing his comic touch. Binder appears convinced--and he convinces us--that running this gauntlet is what eventually defines us. He invites us on for the ride without trying to re-create the disaster, and, in the expanding genre of post-Sept. 11 movies, it's a big step forward.