Much like his previous family drama The Upside of Anger, in which Joan Allen faces a desperate crisis after her husband unexpectedly leaves her and her four daughters, writer-director Mike Binder’s latest drama Reign Over Me carefully studies its main characters and follows them on their complicated quest to escape a life plagued by tragedy. Although the film offers excellent acting performances and works quite well for most of the first hour, the second part is crippled by an irregular plot that switches between saccharine moments and scenes too overblown to be taken seriously.
At first we are introduced to Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a successful dentist with a beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and two wonderful daughters. Johnson leads a rather comfortable life, but he’s been bored out of his mind lately. He has no friends to hang out with, no hobbies, and is usually in bed by 10:30 at night. The closest he comes to doing something fun is helping his wife finish a 1000-piece puzzle. This all changes when he accidentally runs into Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), his old college roommate from dental school. Charlie has been suffering a great loss after his wife and three daughters were killed in the September 11 attack on New York City, and since then, he’s been living in solitude exclusively. Feeling sorry for his friend’s tragedy, Alan attempts to form a bond with him, which is easier said than done. Charlie strictly refuses to talk about his family, and he explodes in a rage every time someone mentions anything about the past.
Mike Binder is known for putting together clever character studies that address real-life tragedies, and whereas his previous film The Upside of Anger hit all the right notes in terms of story and humor, Reign Over Me faces an annoying dilemma. For once, the plot is filled with inconsistencies, which lower the film’s global credibility and make it harder for the audience to completely connect with the main characters. This is manifested in Sandler’s character Charlie Fineman and his sudden outbursts of anger. One minute Alan and Charlie are exchanging thought-provoking dialogue, and the next, Charlie jumps up, screams to the top of his lungs and throws beer at Alan because the latter mentioned something about the past.
Alan doesn’t give up however, and if you wonder why, it’s because Charlie shows him a world he was not yet accustomed to. When he’s with Charlie, Alan enjoys the opportunity to escape his boredom and do guy things, such as drinking, jamming in Charlie’s chaotic apartment, and eating fast food while playing video games. The downside of this is that Alan starts to neglect his own family, which in turn leads to trouble. Here, the movie succeeds in closely examining imbalances in grown-up relationships. Reign Over Me is more successful as a portrait of Don Cheadle’s character and his quest for excitement than it is about Charlie and his family loss.
While the first hour of the film does a solid job at establishing the characters and their personal struggles, the second part turns into a real disaster. Once Alan decides to convince Charlie to see a shrink (the underused Liv Tyler), all hope for a subtle ending is lost. Instead, the plot slams against a wave of saccharine moments that get Sandler to cry but leave the audience rather cold. From there, the story turns to a debate between Sandler’s in-laws and Alan about whether or not Charlie belongs into a mental health clinic. And just when it can’t get any worse, Donald Sutherland appears as a good-hearted judge who lectures everybody about making the right decisions in harsh times.
On a more positive note, the film is comprised of solid acting performances. Adam Sandler takes a break from playing silly characters in unnecessary comedies to prove to his audience that he can act, even though his emotional breakdowns remain mostly unrequited. Acting honors however go to Don Cheadle, who’s not only convincing in the role of the caring dentist, but who’s mostly responsible for capturing and holding the attention of the spectators. If there is one good reason to watch this film, it’s undoubtedly because of him. The remaining cast members fail to impress, and even Jada Pinkett Smith lacks the necessary screen time to fully prove her skills.
The basic premise and even the first trailers for Reign Over Me promised a subtle and heartwarming drama about two lonely individuals whose friendship leads them both to value their life and heal old wounds. While I can’t say that the movie completely misses its target, it is pretty safe to say that Mike Binder runs into a whole lot of implausible inconsistencies before the story comes to a close. Too bad, because he almost got it right.
Whether or not you appreciate the feature film, the DVD for Reign Over Me is a disappointment. Even if you chose to watch all of what the special features section has to offer, you would be done in 20 minutes and probably snoring in front of your TV set as well.
Besides a horde of previews and a photographic montage that is not particularly compelling unless you are a passionate set photographer, the bonus material also comprises a jam session with lead actors Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler. The two briefly talk about their musical skills before offering their viewers an exciting and at times hilarious four-minute session on the guitars. Then again, this extra does not have much in common with the movie itself, which is basically why we are here and watching, right?
Wrapping it up is "Behind the Reign: The Making of Reign Over Me," a 16-minute behind-the-scenes look which is more of an exclusive interview with Mike Binder and Mike Binder alone. Cast and crew skipped this one for whatever reason, and Binder talks about his idea for the movie and how he researched about 9/11 victims and their families. He also mentions the bond between Cheadle and Sandler in the movie and touches on the film’s main themes, before talking more about the filming in New York City. Frankly, I don’t understand why he didn’t save this for a filmmaker’s commentary, an essential feature that is not included on the disc. Plus, a commentary would have given him a fair opportunity to explain some of the wrong decisions he took when he wrote the film. Not this time.
If you missed this one in theatres, Reign Over Me on DVD serves as a good rental for a Saturday evening date with your girlfriend. If you are interested in 9/11 and think the movie may give you more information on what families of the victims go through after the tragedy, don’t expect too much. Charlie’s character is portrayed as extremely eccentric, and the movie, as far as I remember, does not even directly mention September 11. Go rent it for Don Cheadle though. He really nails this one.