Friendship in shadows of New York

Posted: March 23, 2007

Picture two men, once roommates at dental school.

Alan Johnson would seem to have everything - a beautiful wife, adorable daughters, a sun-filled Manhattan co-op, and a prosperous cosmetic-dentistry practice. Charlie Fineman has nothing but a dark apartment haunted by a big-screen television and the PlayStation game Shadow of the Colossus.

When the immaculately groomed Alan (Don Cheadle) sees former roomie Charlie (Adam Sandler) on the street, he is stunned. Can this raggedy man who looks just a ladle away from the soup kitchen really be his onetime pal?

Alan knows that Charlie lost his wife and daughters in a plane crash - and is in such denial that he can't say out loud that the crash was on 9/11. As he extends a hand to help Charlie, the last thing Alan expects is that this simple act of kindness will be the shock therapy he needs to jump-start his own dead emotional engine.

Reign Over Me is about both the impossibility and the necessity of male friendship. Likewise the impossibility and necessity of sorting through the post-9/11 emotional debris, that particulate matter that coats the atmosphere and psyches of America. The film's point is that all of us, not only Alan and Charlie, are still in the shadow of the colossus.

Written and directed by Mike Binder, whose The Upside of Anger was similarly ambitious, audacious and messy (by which I mean psychologically keen and narratively implausible), Reign is a triumph for Cheadle and Sandler, whose performances strew the seeds of regeneration.

Both in his practice and in his person, Alan specializes in porcelain veneers. He may look gleaming and together, but he has buried his emotions so deep and so well that he doesn't know how to recover them - or even where they are. His life is so full of work and obligation that there is no oxygen to breathe. He wants therapy, but can't make an appointment with a professional in his building (the beauteous Liv Tyler). Instead, he asks her questions when he sees her in the hall.

Cheadle, a wiry actor drawn more to the fine grains than the broad strokes of character (Buck in Boogie Nights, Paul Rusesagabina in Hotel Rwanda), carries himself like a man so tightly wrapped that he's coming apart. Yet from Alan's wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) to his receptionist (Paula Newsome) to his patients (especially Saffron Burrows), the women around him variously handle, manhandle and sexually harass him.

Alan's feeling unmanned when he runs into Charlie, whose tousled curls, pursed lips and hangman's muffler signify Bob Dylan of the Blonde on Blonde album cover. Charlie, who doesn't remember Alan, or much else, is so unhinged that he makes Alan feel composed.

And, as Alan's wife shrewdly notes, the man who has it all is secretly envious of the man who has lost it all because Charlie, who scooters through Manhattan like a teenager relieved of his parents, lives free of obligation and responsibility.

Binder (an actor/writer/director who gives himself a small part in the film as Charlie's attorney) gets the best out of his actors in this electrifying character study.

A few droplets of Alan's attention make the wilted Charlie spring back to something like life. Before long, Alan persuades Charlie to take off his headphones (the film takes its title from an anthem by the Who) and tune into the world around him. And he even agrees to get therapy.

Reign provides Sandler with the trickiest and most ambitious role of his career. Tricky because in the recent past, the fanboys haven't flocked to see this jester in a serious role. Ambitious because its degree of difficulty surpasses that of the other projects he's done where a character, not necessarily his, has mental or neurological issues (Punch-Drunk Love, 50 First Dates, Spanglish).

The undercurrent of rage that flows through Sandler's work threatens to turn tidal here - and that works to Reign's advantage. It keeps Cheadle, and the audience, on edge. This said, Sandler only intermittently drew me into Charlie. Is it because people lacking emotional affect are robotic? Or is it something lacking in Sandler's performance?

The therapeutic community will be startled to see a psychiatrist prescribe her nymphomaniac patient for Charlie. (Charlie's delusion? Binder's fantasy?)

Happily, this does not sink Binder's film. An eleventh-hour boost from Donald Sutherland as a judicious judge helps keep it afloat. As does Russ T. Alsobrook's nocturnal cinematography showing Manhattan as a place where the twinkling lights can't fully penetrate the ominous shadows. Yet it is also a place where a shadow-ridden man can reclaim the past and help his friend see the light.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215 854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

 

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