Sooner or later a film was bound to make 9/11 a glib plot point and with REIGN OVER ME, so it has come to pass. The good news is that this is one-half of a terrific film. The bad news is that Adam Sandler is in the other half. The worse news is that 9/11 isn’t germane to anything in the flick except a cheap way to get people’s tear ducts in gear.
The terrific film stars Don Cheadle as Alan Johnson, a successful dentist who has it all: a practice noted for the less than taxing specialty of putting veneers on less than perfect teeth, a sleek and gorgeous wife, Janeane, (Jada Pinkett Smith), two great kids, and a home in New York City that wouldn’t make the cover of Architectural Digest, but would rate a small featurette towards the back just before the classifieds. For all this, Alan is leading a life of quiet desperation, emotionally removed from a family that is nonetheless stifling him, and anything but passionate about his profession, the generous if inappropriate offer from a new patient (Saffron Burrows) notwithstanding. Alan is drifting along barely aware of how miserable he is when he runs into his old college roommate, Charley Fineman (Sandler), a once equally prosperous dentist who has been adrift since losing his wife and three daughters in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. When Alan first spots him, he’s lumbering along carrying two cans of paint and blocking out the world with some serious headphones. Alan tracks him down and despite the 15 years or so that have passed, finds himself wanting to pick up where they left off even though Charley can name all five great lakes but can’t remember Alan at all and is obsessively remodeling the kitchen of his oddly bare apartment.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is going. Each man has gotten lost and each finds something in the other to shock him out of his particular stupor and back into life. It’s a solid premise and Cheadle runs with it, playing the emotions of his character with the deft touch of a virtuoso finding essential truths as well as the humor in tragedy and tragedy in humor that negotiating an unfulfilled life encompasses. By contrast, Sandler drones in an adenoidal monotone, head tucked firmly askew as though doing an impression of Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN and a painfully bad one at that. When his big moment comes with Charlie’s inevitable emotional breakdown, he approaches it as though mussing up his hair, adding a few gray streaks, and squeezing out a few tears is as much as anyone should expect of him. Oddly enough, it’s in a later, almost throwaway moment, when he is confronting his in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon all heart and soul) that he finally gets it right, but the moment is all too brief and far too late, not to mention fleeting. It does a painful disservice to the sort of sharp, observational work that writer/director Mike Binder’s did in his previous film, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER.
The film’s other great failing is Pinkett Smith. She has made of Janeane such a cold, hard, and seriously bitchy control freak managing every moment of Alan’s free time that when Janeane accuses Alan of being jealous of Charley’s freedom, the only response is to think “Of course he is”. This is a man who hasn’t had a buddy to do guy things with in longer than he can remember because his wife doesn’t like it. A softer approach might have made for a more interesting marriage dynamic. As it stands, Janeane is only slightly less unsympathetic than the guys who crashed the plane that killed Charley’s family and who are mentioned frequently.
Liv Tyler, on the other hand, as Charley’s therapist friend who tries to help Charley come to terms with what’s happening is supremely nurturing, gentle, and yet with a steely resolve that makes her irresistible. Also good is Donald Sutherland as the unflappable and unflappably wise judge presiding over the equally inevitable commitment hearing Charley garners after an unfortunate interlude involving a gun.
With REIGN OVER ME (the title comes from the song by The Who that Charley is fond of), Cheadle proves that he can rise above almost anything. If he can’t quite save the film from Sandler, he can at least make it palatable to wait him out.