Five and a half years. Is it still too soon for a 9/11 themed movie? And, in the case of Reign Over Me, is this just a gimmick to boost interest in the film or would another scenario work equally well? Those two questions beg to be asked.
Unlike United 93 and World Trade Center, Reign Over Me deals with the aftermath of the tragedy rather than the actual events of Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 20 years after college, and five years after 9/11, two college roommates are reunited on the streets of Manhattan. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) has it all -- a beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), a precocious daughter, a thriving cosmetic dental practice, and a false sexual harassment lawsuit pending. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) has nothing -- his wife and daughters were killed when their plane crashed into the World Trade Center. In the ensuing five years he has slipped into his own world, blocking out most of his past and losing all ability to function in society.
Is Alan the only one who can help bring Charlie back from the edge? Three guesses, and the first two don't count.
Cheadle and Sandler
For the third time in his career, Adam Sandler tries to perfect a serious role and leave behind his Happy Gilmore days. His success lands somewhere between his flop in Spanglish and his hit in Punch Drunk Love -- but closer to the flop end of the spectrum. What you end up with is a hybrid of Billy Madison and Rain Man. By the time you're finally ready to take Sandler seriously, he's forced to take Charlie even closer to the edge. It's asking a lot of the audience to follow him out that far.
Cheadle is much stronger playing the steady-yet-unhappy Alan. As a man going through his mid-life crisis, he at least is able to focus his attentions on Charlie rather than something more trite and predictable. He has his inevitable moment of redemption, but he's such a nice guy it's easy to root for him the entire time.
The real tragedy of the movie is that Pinkett Smith isn't better utilized. She's capable of emoting more with one look than Sandler does throughout the entire film. She far outshines Liv Tyler, who is just too breathy and weak to give much credibility as a shrink, let alone one capable of handling Charlie.
Writer, director and co-star Mike Binder works hard to find the balance between tragedy, comedy and hope. This balancing act ultimately means that none of them are done well -- the film is as befuddled as Charlie.
As the story meanders its way to the end, it strays too far off course. Finding the long way back only serves as a reminder as to how lost Binder has gotten us. As a perfect example, the sexual-harassment subplot is ridiculous enough to start with, but the resolution is down-right insulting.
Reign Over Me
Starring Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle
Opens March 23
The best, and possibly only redeeming, part of the film is the soundtrack. Using Charlie's obsession with collecting old records, Binder is able to infuse the film with classic hits from The Who, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen to give life to an otherwise mundane existence.
So to answer the big question: Does this have to be a 9/11 movie? Ultimately, yes, but not because it's an artistic examination of the terrorist attack. The reason Reign Over Me has to be a 9/11-based film is because Sandler isn't strong enough to otherwise carry the plot. There are many ways in which Charlie could have lost his family, but by using 9/11, and tapping into the memories of the audience, Reign Over Me can rely on the viewer to take the final step to a cathartic resolution that the cast alone cannot provide.
Reign Over Me is as predictable as you expect. But, for a film with such an obvious outcome, it sure takes a long time to get there. In this case, the journey is not worth the destination.