Five years after the cataclysm of September 11, American wounds are still so thinly scabbed that any reference to that real disaster in something as artificial as a movie remains a shock; just the matter-of-fact appearance of the Twin Towers in the New York skyline in a story set prior to 2001 is enough to bruise a viewer’s heart, a reminder of all that’s missing. Reign Over Me jabs at those bruises with well-meaning fingers — and with Adam Sandler’s tears — making for a strange, black-and-blue therapeutic drama equally mottled with likable good intentions and agitating clumsiness.
Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, once a successful Manhattan dentist and now an emotional wreck, with matted bird’s-nest hair and a gray face to advertise his distress. Charlie roams the streets at all hours on a scooter, blocking out the trembling beauty of the city with big crazy-man headphones clamped over his ears. (His music of choice: rock from the long-lost ’70s and ’80s, particularly The River-era Springsteen, and the redemptive song from the Who’s Quadrophenia that inspires the movie’s title.) And that’s how fellow dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) first sees his old friend and college roommate on the street — a lost soul on wheels, tuned beyond the reach of another human voice.
Alan himself resides at the other end of the misery spectrum, which is to say he’s an affluent, responsible if routine-weary husband (his wife is played by a graceful Jada Pinkett Smith), a father to two good daughters, and an attractive professional whose biggest workplace problem may be that female patients tend to throw themselves at him, burdening him with the manly responsibility of deflecting their advances. Still, he feels stifled, and stale in marriage — the kind of male character who regularly occupies the mind of writer and director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), creator of TV’s The Mind of the Married Man.
It doesn’t take long for an audience to piece together Charlie’s tragedy: His wife and three daughters died in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center that cruelly sunny September morning, and he literally can’t bear to think about his loss. But it takes a maddening tease of time and plot-stalling to find out what these two men can possibly do to help one another through their pains, and an unpleasant leap of faith to believe that Alan, in his sitcom-strength dissatisfaction, might envy Charlie’s unexpected freedom to reinvent himself.
It takes an even longer time — the entire movie, really—to get a handle on Sandler’s unstable interpretation of incapacitating grief as something close to autism, tweaked with instances of buddy-buddy kibitzing. Whether or not they’re successful, I have come to seriously admire the artistic sophistication of Sandler’s choice in projects, particularly when he taps into the adult rage behind the child-doofus Peter Pan persona — e.g., Punch-Drunk Love or Anger Management. But I still hit a wall of alienation when it comes to that big-baby drawl the star sticks with, and with the obtuseness his preferred characters display toward other adults, suggestive of vexing mental problems. For instance, while out on one of his man dates with Charlie, Alan learns over the phone that his own father has just died. Charlie is as incapable of absorbing his friend’s news as a 2-year-old. Instead, he’s obsessed with where to get some Chinese food.
Were two such looming subjects — 9/11 and Adam Sandler — not the attention-consuming focal points of Reign Over Me, the movie would be a nice, New Yorky sketch, sweetly shot all over town, about a smooth fellow (Cheadle is elegant, even on the back of his costar’s Go-Ped) negotiating a well-stocked Woody Allen landscape of supporting players: There’s a crazy, sex-hungry patient (Saffron Burrows) who stalks Alan’s pants, and, in Charlie’s corner, Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon as in-laws, Liv Tyler as an empathetic shrink, Donald Sutherland as a forceful court judge, and even the filmmaker himself as an uncouth accountant who guards the widower’s millions in insurance and government payouts.
But there it is again: serious consequences of 9/11, casually referenced, and hitched to the wishful story of a bored, unexceptional dentist who has hit a mild communication snag with his reasonable wife. The juxtaposition is as tenuous as Charlie’s grip on reality, held together only by an audience’s own nervous sadness and yearning for consolation.