You may think Reign Over Me is a movie about a friendship between two men: one of whom has a flimsy grasp on reality after suffering great tragedy and the other needing to appreciate the fullness of his life. This is only partially true. At its core, Reign Over Me is about grief — how people grieve differently and how we deem only certain kinds of grief appropriate. The script is a little scattered, but it's ultimately a very touching film, in large part thanks to Don Cheadle.
Adam Sandler stars as Charlie Fineman, whose wife and three daughters (and poodle, of all things) perished in one of the planes on 9/11. Unable to process this, Charlie has blocked the tragedy almost entirely, living in a disconnected haze by clamping headphones on his ears and zooming through New York on his scooter. One day, however, an old college friend Alan Johnson (Cheadle) spots him on the street and decides to help him. This proves no easy task, what with Charlie's Rain Man-esque relationship to the world and his violent, unpredictable outbursts. Eventually, the great question becomes whether or not Charlie should be institutionalized, while in a weaker plot line, Alan examines his marriage to his "naggy" wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith). To hear what I thought,
I feared that 9/11 would be used in an exploitative way, but instead, the focus is narrowed to one man's pain, hitting home with more potency. There is no gratuitous acting out of, say, the moment of Charlie's wife's death. In some ways I wonder if, because that would be too much for Charlie, it would also be too much for us. His behavior does seem off-kilter, but as the movie wears on, it starts to look achingly justified, until you’re tsk-tsking the characters who most resembled you earlier in the film – those who called him crazy for grieving the way he is.
Though Adam Sandler has some poignant moments, Don Cheadle is the heart of this film. In fact, I suspect that the moments when Sandler truly shines are due to the fact that he has to step it up playing alongside Don Cheadle. Liv Tyler makes a good therapist with her sweet trust-me eyes, while Donald Sutherland plays a judge, taking BJ Novak to task in a highly satisfying scene. Paula Newsome — familiar to "Heroes" fans as the psychologist who tried to help Niki — provides some much-needed comedic relief as Dr. Johnson’s office manager.
Yet while the cast is excellent, non-human elements that play equally important roles. Popular music is placed purposefully throughout the film, both in conversation and in the soundtrack. It’s so thoughtfully used, in fact, that I found myself frustrated by the movie's piano-and-strings score — pop songs alternated with silence would have been more evocative.
New York City, too, is important: We view the streets from the vantage point of Charlie’s scooter, and city shots are used often to establish time and place. Like Charlie and Alan — or like humans in general — the city has the potential for great success and great destruction; the city being our country’s economic epicenter and also the source of tremendous sorrow. In the cold winter light, New York seems especially good for examining one’s grief, along with the ever-present possibility for hope.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures