After several years of tentatively dipping its toe into the September 11th waters, Hollywood finally seems ready to dive in. United 93, World Trade Center, and now Reign Over Me all deal with the tragedy with admirable forthrightness — but is it wrong that my favorite attempt remains Steven Spielberg’s upsetting allegory War of the Worlds? That film recontextualized the event, but it was at least honest in its attempts to evoke a visceral, horrified reaction: it tried healing through confrontation. Reign Over Me wants to heal us by portraying us as lovable crazies, though it stops short of actually pitching therapy as the solution. It’s treacly, misguided, and miscast.
Charlie (Adam Sandler) is the problem. Charlie used to be a dentist before September 11th “rearranged his dance card” — his wife and two daughters were killed in the attack, and his response was to shut out the world. Living on his insurance settlement, he spends his days immersed in a video game (“Shadow of the Colossus”), and rides around New York on a motor scooter, wearing headphones. When he runs into his successful dental school chum Alan (Don Cheadle), the latter — who hasn’t seen Charlie in years — decides to try to sort him out.
Most importantly, Sandler is way out of his league here. He has aptly handled some “serious” roles in the past — he was perfect for P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and charming in Spanglish — but this role is so far beyond him that watching him becomes unpleasant. It’s hardly his fault, as the part would likely stymie most actors, but he makes the rookie mistake of overplaying hideously, giving the character phony affectations and calling it acting. He does a lot of funny talking, sudden raging, and rocking back and forth, and that’s about it — Charlie is those characteristics. Everything else we know about him, we learn from other people.
It doesn’t help that writer-director Mike Binder (who also co-stars as Charlie’s vaguely sleazy attorney) virtually hangs Sandler out to dry by writing the character with a heavy hand and the most obvious ploys in the book. We learn early, for example, that Charlie has been remodeling his kitchen every month since the tragedy. We patiently await the explanation for this, only to learn that — oh yes — the last time he talked to his wife, they discussed the remodeling and he snapped at her. More of Charlie’s secrets are revealed in a lengthy showstopper of a speech meant to make grown men cry, but it’s so manipulative — and Sandler’s performance so affected — that the big dramatic moment just hangs there, twisting in the wind.
Cheadle fares somewhat better, though he too falls prey to Binder’s ham-fisted writing. The screenplay pointedly makes Alan indecisive (setting up the big late-film moment when he finally stands up for himself), but its approach to this is to have him stammer and talk nonsense, or alternatively leave the room, then change his mind and return to finish his thought. (Come to think of it, a lot of people do that in Reign Over Me.) At one point, Alan has a confrontation with his wife that’s so poorly written, it stopped the film cold and left a sour aftertaste for several of the subsequent scenes. Cheadle does all he can, but it’s just not terribly convincing.
The ending suggests — nay, dictates — that we find our own way, heal on our own time, even if we have to spend years battling imaginary (here, video game) giants to do it. And of course that’s fine; I doubt anyone will quibble with Reign Over Me‘s good intentions. But I didn’t believe a moment of it on a story level, and that makes its central metaphor almost insulting. At least War of the Worlds was willing to level with us. That film’s missing-persons bulletin board hit harder than any of Reign Over Me‘s tearjerkery.