In 9/11-themed 'Reign Over Me,' Sandler stars but Cheadle rules

Posted: March 23, 2007

While there may be people out there who doubt that movies can help make sense of 9/11, writer-director Mike Binder isn't one of them.

His new picture, "Reign Over Me," is about a man (Adam Sandler) who loses his family and nearly his mind in the terrorist attacks. Only pop culture keeps him tethered to sanity - he survives on all-night Mel Brooks movie marathons, Xbox video games and an MP3 player crammed with tunes transferred from his enormous collection of vinyl records (the movie's title is taken from a song by The Who).

Binder's conceit is that all of these distractions keep the man, Charlie Fineman, from remembering that which is too painful to remember - the wife and three daughters he lost when their hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center.

Binder grants that Fineman's life isn't much of one. He rides around New York City (on a motorized scooter) in an iPod fog. When an old college pal named Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) stops him on the street, the dazed widower doesn't even recognize his roommate of two years.

Johnson coaxes Fineman into joining him for coffee. He wants a chance to express his sympathy for Fineman's loss, though he soon learns that any mention of the catastrophe invites an outburst of frightening anger. Johnson, though, has another motive - his efficient wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) has taken over his life, and Johnson feels as if he's losing something that an independent friendship might restore.

"Reign Over Me" is really Cheadle's movie, with shades of what he brought to "Crash" - the harried man who struggles in a complex situation to identify the right thing and do it. In this case, that means getting the grief-avoiding, therapist-hating Fineman to a psychiatrist (Johnson learns that others have tried and failed miserably).

But while Cheadle has center stage, a great deal rides on the audience's willingness to accept lowbrow comedy fixture Sandler as the distraught widower.

Does he make the role his own? Not really. There are plenty of actors who wear tragedy (not to mention facial hair) better. On the other hand, Sandler doesn't embarrass himself, and there are aspects to Fineman that are in keeping with Sandler's screen persona. There's always been something in Sandler that suggests a man not altogether there - the way he mumbles and avoids eye contact with other actors (his mannerisms in "Reign" are not far removed from those of "Punch-Drunk Love," or even "Little Nicky" and "The Waterboy"), and of course angry outbursts are his calling card.

There are familiar elements here for both star and director. The way that Johnson and Fineman help each other through their respective crises is similar to the structure that Binder gave his "The Upside of Anger," which paired a jilted Joan Allen with aging playboy Kevin Costner. Both movies have a rambling episodic structure, a varied and unpredictable tone and a roster of wacky characters that could have been pared down.

Sticking out like a sore nymphomaniac in "Reign" is Saffron Burrows as a randy divorcee who nearly ruins Johnson's dental practice with false allegations of assault, then figures in Binder's misjudged decision to give the movie a romantically tidy resolution.

It's one of several groaners in "Reign," most of which turn up in the crucial final reel, with Fineman hauled before a judge by parties seeking to have him committed.

You wish the movie had ended sooner, and better. Still, it's hard not to be moved by Cheadle's performance here as a man determined to help lost-soul Fineman, if only because no one else can or will. *

Produced by Jack Binder, Michael Rotenberg, written and directed by Mike Binder, music by Rolfe Kent, distributed by Sony Pictures.

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