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With: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Donald Sutherland, Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon, Mike Binder, Jonathan Banks, Rae Allen
Written by: Mike Binder
Directed by: Mike Binder
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual references
Running Time: 124
Date: 03/22/2007

Reign Over Me (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Men Out of Whack

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in the 1940s and 50s there existed a genre called the "family melodrama" or the "women's weepie." Practitioners like Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli found ways to express complex emotions that couldn't be openly discussed and did so through deceptively commonplace visual means, shadows and light, furniture arrangement, and dramatic angles. Nowadays, everything can be discussed and usually is discussed. Filmmakers like Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) must compensate by writing intelligent screenplays, with fully fleshed-out characters, which oddly enough makes things both simpler and more complicated.

Binder's new Reign Over Me deals with two emotionally crippled men, one a slavishly henpecked husband and the other a widower unable to deal with the loss of his wife and three daughters. Manhattan cosmetic dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) suddenly runs into his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler, looking frighteningly like Bob Dylan). Since Alan does not trigger any painful memories within him, Charlie reaches out to him. Alan is similarly intrigued by Charlie's bizarre freedom (he's independently wealthy thanks to a settlement). The two men together create an instant camaraderie, and it's strong enough to push through the film's rough spots; Alan continues to hang out with Charlie even though Charlie is sometimes prone to violent outbursts.

In their roles, Cheadle and Sandler deliver major league performances. Sandler in particular nearly reaches the level of his personal best (Punch-Drunk Love). But Binder can't sustain this energy across the film's entire spectrum, at least not for 124 minutes. He sometimes succumbs to easy sentiment, such as bringing in 9/11 as the cause for Charlie's loss; this dates and stamps the movie, and moves it past the realm of personal tragedy into something bigger and less easy to identify with. The film's minor characters, such as Alan's shrewish wife (poor Jada Pinkett Smith) or one of Alan's dangerously flirty patients (Saffron Burrows), eventually wear thin. On the plus side, Liv Tyler brings a gentle maturity to her role as a helpful shrink. (Binder also turns up in a role, playing Charlie's sleazy "financial handler.")

Fortunately, the core of Reign Over Me, the men's colliding stories, is very strong. It suggests that, given the chance, men will revert to boyhood. Alan and Charlie go to Mel Brooks movies, play video games and listen to old music (on vinyl). (The title comes from The Who's Quadrophenia.) Binder is smart enough, though, not to celebrate this juvenility but rather to illustrate its drawbacks. When Charlie plays his video game, he sits lonely and lumpen in the center of a square, shadowy living room, dwarfed by a giant TV screen.

But by the end, characters are on their way to adulthood, painful and messy though it may be. Binder realizes that, though everything can be discussed, characters often don't want to. Or, perhaps more often, characters will discuss something that they believe is the truth, but that actually covers up an even more truthful truth. Perhaps it would have been easier for Binder to depict these conundrums through visual means, but in crafting his honest, intelligent dialogue, he has instead entrusted his visual scheme to his actors. And, as with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner in The Upside of Anger, these opposing forces have come together to make a movie. And it's a good one. Reign Over Me

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