Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is a successful Manhattan dentist with an amazing apartment, a beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and bright young daughters. By chance, Alan runs into Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) — the one everyone whispers about, the one who dropped off the face of the earth after losing his wife and three daughters “on the plane.” With his shaggy mane and ratty coat, Charlie is one of New York's invisible people, riding along on his motor scooter, buried in headphones. Reaching out to a troubled old friend, Alan suggests a coffee.
The pair develops a friendship based not on shared interests but, as it turns out, a lost sense of self. Charlie, who refuses to talk about the incident that claimed his family, is most obviously in need of help. Drowning out the world with his iPod, Charlie sits in his sparse living room slaying a videogame dragon in lieu of the one he can't slay in real life. He ignores his former in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon), who remind him of what he no longer has. He'll go into a rage when he thinks someone is sizing him up. But Charlie doesn't want to be figured out or dissected, lest he face the pain that hangs over him. He is safe in the confines of his misery.
Alan is happy to make Charlie his new project, but it only serves to reveal his own unhappiness. Although his married life seems enviable, he's uncommunicative with his wife. His aging parents are a burden, and a crazy woman (Saffron Burrows, not quite fitting in) is threatening a trumped-up sexual harassment lawsuit. His loneliness doesn't have Charlie's overt trappings, but the two are equally troubled. Alan doesn't know it, but he can't help himself until he helps Charlie.
Binder is a generous director whose casually deliberate style gives his actors plenty of room to roll around in the perceptive dialogue, and Cheadle wouldn't give a bad performance on a bet. The wildcard is, of course, Sandler. The movie breathes easier whenever he gets a laugh, as if every wisecrack buys more time to win over an audience that expects him to be funny. It's a tough sell, as Charlie is essentially the dramatic flipside to the immature characters he portrays in his comedies. But hiring the former SNL star is less a case of trick casting than it used to be. Although his youthful looks and throaty yell suggest Big Daddy more than existential angst, Sandler is laudably committed, even selling the inevitable breakdown scene when he finally tells the story of what happened to his family.
Toward the end, Binder loses his grip slightly, especially when he threatens to uncork the facile conclusion that Charlie is just plain nuts. Consider it a misstep when Charlie is dragged before a judge (Donald Sutherland) who ponders whether to lock him up for psychiatric treatment. But Charlie doesn't need psychiatric treatment any more than the movie needs a courtroom scene. Indeed,
Reign Over Me
achieves more when it strives for less, content to be the heartfelt tale of two fog-bound men whose respective miseries would cancel each other out, if only they could acknowledge them. To its credit, the film won't give anyone closure regarding 9/11, nor is it meant to. But it gives Charlie closure, which is more than enough.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows and Donald Sutherland
Director/Screenwriter: Mike Binder
Producers: Michael Rotenberg and Jack Binder
Rating: R for language and some sexual references
Running time: 128 min.
Release date: March 23, 2007