'Reign Over Me'

Adam Sandler in a serious vein in post-9/11 movie

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What is the difference between a man whose family was on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center towers and another whose was not? Perhaps more intriguing, what is the similarity?

Tracy Bennett
The aftermath of 9/11 reconnects Don Cheadle, left, with Adam Sandler in "Reign Over Me."
Click photo for larger image.

'Reign Over Me'

Starring: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Liv Tyler, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Director: Mike Binder.
Rating: R for language and some sexual references.
Web site: sonypictures.com/movies/reignoverme/

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In "Reign Over Me," Manhattan dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is thoroughly bored with veneering -- equally alienated from his priggish partners and his jigsaw-puzzling wife (Jada Pinkett Smith). He seems almost grateful to focus on somebody who's worse off: his old dental-school roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), a former good-time guy whose wife and kids died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Charlie, with his bedraggled hair, looking for all the world like Bob Dylan's twin brother, prowls the semi-deserted streets of lower Manhattan aimlessly on a motor scooter, blocking out the city with Springsteen and Who songs blasting through his headphones. He is still in a state of shock, incessantly renovating his kitchen and playing a video game called "Shadow of the Colossus," in which he can slay the evil dragons that slew his family in real life.

Alan meets up and reconnects with this ghost of a friend, who reluctantly lets him in -- so long as Alan doesn't mention or invade his loss. In a perverse way, he is almost envious of Charlie's problematic "freedom."

Writer-director Mike Bender (who also acts in the film, as Sandler's facile business manager), has mixed credits, ranging from "The Search for John Gissing" to "The Upside of Anger." His is a casual, discursive approach to storytelling, allowing actors the time and space needed to convey complexities. It's often hard to guess if a scene is building toward comic relief or emotional epiphany.

That unpredictability infuses "Reign Over Me," as does the wonderful soundtrack, consisting largely of Springsteen's "The River" hits and two versions of the Who's title song -- the original, plus a terrific Pearl Jam cover.

Too bad there are dumb plot detours, including one that has Cheadle fending off a nymphomaniacal patient (Saffron Burrows). But the inevitable scene in which Charlie finally breaks through to discuss the day he lost his family is worth waiting for. As Sandler haltingly starts to talk, Cheadle and therapist Liv Tyler listen with frozen attention, as spellbound as the audience.

If only the film had ended there, sparing us a courtroom scene and the gratuitous presence of Charlie's in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon). With 9/11, why would you need MORE melodrama?

Donald Sutherland as the judge there and Paula Newsome as Alan's sassy receptionist provide humor to offset the gloom. Cheadle blends decency with perplexity, deftly negotiating the minefield of Charlie's mood swings. His role (and the script) are blessedly free of any mention of race, and the co-stars bring out the best in each other.

But all eyes are on Sandler. This is a role that comedians die for, to show they can be Serious. Many would botch it by overacting (Robin Williams comes to mind), but Sandler eschews grandstanding. He is not cute but vulnerable. Not crazy but damaged, a kind of semi-autistic idiot savant, like Peter Sellers in "Being There."

A thick, stunned atmosphere hangs over both the city and the film throughout, like the awful smoke above the hole that was the Twin Towers. The movie sputters toward its contrived, melodramatic climax -- lurching between tearjerker sentimentality and realism. But its treatment of survivor guilt and the inability of time (or therapy) to heal certain wounds is powerfully real.

"Reign Over Me" is not about 9/11 but about the way people have tried (or failed) to rebuild their lives in its aftermath. It transcends its flaws. It also answers the question of whether Adam Sandler can be taken seriously as an actor. With the idiosyncratic subtlety of this truly moving performance, he holds the screen like never before.

Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com .


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