Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me is a film that could have gone wrong in so many different ways that it’s remarkable that it actually ends up succeeding on several different levels. As with his 2005 film, The Upside of Anger, Binder is dealing with the tricky subjects of loss and reconciliation that, if not handled nearly perfectly, could very well go right off its tracks and into maudlinville.
This time the loss is of an entire family on one of the airplanes that were hijacked on 9/11. Adam Sandler is Charlie Fineman, a former dentist who has completely shut out the memories of his family and the tragic events of that day, in order not to have to deal with his loss. Don Cheadle is Dr. Alan Johnson, Charlie’s old college roommate who, after not having seen him for several years, discovers him riding his scooter down the streets of Manhattan. Once Alan realizes that Charlie has withdrawn from society, he knows that he has to help him. However, Alan has issues of his own to deal with, as his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) has been complaining that he doesn’t open up to her anymore. These scenes between Cheadle and Smith are a bit awkward and under-developed, almost as if they were an afterthought to the more interesting relationship that develops between Alan and Charlie.
As for Alan and Charlie, it would have been easy for writer/director Binder to take the easy way out by throwing in teary scene after teary scene between the two, but instead he develops their unlikely friendship in other, more interesting and ultimately rewarding ways. While it’s easy to feel for Charlie and his tragic loss, Binder also focuses on Alan and his reasons for wanting to spend so much time with Charlie, even as he often gets violent when Alan tries to get him to think about the past. Alan seems to be tiring of his mundane life as a dentist, and he also feels suffocated by his marriage and his own loss – that of freedom – that he cherished so much back in his college days. While Alan knows that Charlie is certainly in denial and in need of help, there is something about his “do-anything-he-wants-while-not-dealing-with-his-problems” lifestyle that Alan is attracted to. It’s in this paradox that the film strikes gold, as Alan actually becomes the more interesting character at times. There is also a supporting character, a woman who falsely accuses Alan of sexual harassment, which at first seems an unnecessary distraction for the film until her character is taken in an unusual and touching direction later on.
The teary scenes that I spoke of earlier where Charlie bears his soul do come eventually, but by that time we feel that they have been well-earned, and are all the more effective because of it. Don Cheadle is his usual stellar self as Alan and Adam Sandler is surprisingly good as Charlie, whom Sandler never plays as a victim but more as a stubborn and sometimes caustic guy who has lots of problems to deal with. With Reign Over Me and The Upside of Anger, Mike Binder is slowly but surely putting together a resume of films about loss that are surprising in their subtlety and finesse.