Writer/Director Mike Binder is the master of missed opportunities. HBO gave him a chance to create the “he said” version of Sex and the City, a bona fide slam dunk for the network. So what does he do? Creates a tedious, drawn-out exercise in male unpleasantness, which, to the shock of nobody, faced a quick execution.
Then there was The Upside Of Anger, a film that had its moments but ultimately suffocated on its own self-importance. With his latest release, Reign Over Me, he seems poised to turn it all around. And he does--until his bad habits leak into the movie and pollute it.
For two-thirds of the way, Reign Over Me is a surprisingly solid flick. Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a successful dentist who has a perfect wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and perfect kids, but feels a gaping hole in his life that resembles one of his patient’s cavities. He craves excitement, something to pry him away from the 1000-piece puzzles he does with his wife before they hit the hay at 10:30 p.m. every evening.
Which is why when he sees his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), riding a scooter around the city and listening to music, he is strangely drawn to him. But Charlie has lived through an unfathomable tragedy: His wife, three daughters--and even the family poodle--were killed on September 11, and he can’t find the will to recover.
The movie is mainly about their friendship and how they help each other reclaim their zest for life. It all sounds awfully hokey, but Binder is smart enough to keep the tone light for most of it, showing them hanging out and doing guy things in between Sandler’s spontaneous fits of rage in clubs or office lobbies. He's blocked out his old life, and if someone dares to bring it up to him, he goes all kinds of ballistic. Call it the Hollywood version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, similar to the Hollywood version of Cancer Victim where the woman has perfectly applied make-up while resting on her death bed.
But the true standout isn’t Sandler, since his character isn’t written as an actual human being. The movie belongs to Cheadle. He’s the guy you really care about and he’s the guy you want to see get everything he wants out of life. When a beautiful yet unstable patient (Saffron Burrows) tries to corner him in his office for sex, he tosses her out and slams the door. What’s not to like about a guy like that and a movie about a guy like that.
Which brings us back to Binder and his knack for missteps. In a better version of Reign Over Me, the loony patient would not pop up in Charlie’s life as a potential love interest. There wouldn’t be a big courtroom showdown with Donald Sutherland sitting behind the bench scolding his lawyers. And the eponymous song by The Who wouldn’t be played on several occasions to pound home the message.
Reign Over Me is a wildly uneven ride, one that has moments of brilliance that get washed away by the contrivances plaguing the overwrought, lingering last third. Binder almost had it with this one; if only he knew the right time to walk away.