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REIGN OVER ME

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Donald Sutherland, Mike Binder
Director: Mike Binder
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Sony
Features: See Review
Length: 124 Minutes
Release Date: October 9, 2007

“You’re a good husband. You remind me of me.”

Film ***

Like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey before him, Adam Sandler is a funnyman who continues to venture into more dramatic territory now and again. His past dramatic efforts, Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, resulted in some of his best work. But not even the promise he showed in those two films will quite prepare you for his performance in Reign Over Me, which is unquestionably his strongest performance yet.

Add to the mix an equally heartfelt performance from Don Cheadle and some good intelligent writing courtesy of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), and you’ve got a top-notch dramatic film at hand. True, it’s a bit predictable in some places, but the richness of Binder’s characters and the deeply involving emotional material make up for that. For once, this is “tearjerker” that doesn’t feel so manipulative, unlike Sandler’s last movie, the way overrated Click (the depressing drama masquerading as a comedy).

The film opens in on Alan Johnson (Cheadle), a NYC dentist who’s made a good life for himself. One day, Alan spots an old friend of his riding on a scooter. The friend, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), doesn’t seem to remember Alan from their college days, which leaves Alan puzzled.

Before long, it becomes clear to Alan that Charlie has become somewhat disillusioned with reality. Not only does Charlie not acknowledge his friendship with Alan, but he also seems to have distance himself from just about everything in his past. Everything, that is, before 9/11 when Charlie’s wife and kids were killed in one of the plane crashes.

So Alan takes it upon himself to form a bond with Charlie to rekindle their friendship, as well secretly help him through a healing process. But as Alan soon finds out, it’s not going to be easy. Whenever he brings up certain issues like family or Charlie even being single, Charlie snaps in an emotional rage. He refuses to go near a therapist, but Alan still finds reason enough to strike up a bond with his former friend, as it may be the only means of healing available.

And Charlie does respond to the male bonding. He repeatedly tracks down Alan at both his office and home. Eventually, the two are having late night jam sessions at Charlie’s apartment, playing video games, making trips to the local vinyl record store and even attending an all night Mel Brooks film festival at a nearby theater. In the process, Alan begins to rediscover his own humanity, though before long his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) starts to question how her husband is handling his priorities.

Even though the film represents a dramatic revelation for Sandler, the first half of the film does require him to engage in some of the type of behavior we’re used to seeing in his comedies. But what writer/director Binder has done here is unique in that it serves as a way for Charlie to neglect his true emotions before letting it all out in the film’s powerful second half. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a character let loose emotions as a result of therapy, but Sandler’s heartbreaking scene where he must accept the past is one of the most real and wrenching ones I’ve ever seen, and the timing of it is just right.

The film also makes room for some good supporting work as well. At first, the idea of Liv Tyler playing a therapist didn’t register with me (that maybe because Ms. Tyler is so distractingly beautiful in every movie she’s in), but I was totally wrong as she is thoroughly believable and delivers a strong performance with precious little screen time. One of my small complaints is that I think she deserved even more screen time. Donald Sutherland does a fine job in the concluding portion of the film as a court judge, as does Mike Binder himself, also playing a therapist.

The one thing about the film that keeps it from being great is a subplot at the beginning of the film that doesn’t need to be in the film, and has a somewhat strange resolution. It involves a female patient of Alan’s named Donna (Saffron Burrows), who threatens to accuse him of sexual harassment after she tried to make a move on him during an appointment. For some unknown reason, she makes her way back into the story late in the film and Alan even suggest her as a potential girlfriend for Charlie. It’s an unnecessary portion of an otherwise very strong film.

Reign Over Me is an emotional drama done the right way. It’s intelligent, heartfelt, and superbly acted. And no matter how many future dramatic projects Adam Sandler tackles, it will be seriously hard to top his revealing work here. And that’s saying quite a lot following something like Punch Drunk Love.

Lastly, I should mention that the classic Who song “Love Reign O’er Me” is featured in the film, both in its original recording as well as a stunning cover by Pearl Jam.

Video ***1/2

This is quite a strong looking presentation from Sony. I was caught off guard a bit when it seemed that certain scenes appeared to be shot in high-def video while others appeared in traditional form. At any rate, the anamorphic picture is very much top of the line, with nice detail, persistent clarity and good use of colors.

Audio ***

The film is dialogue driven and nothing more, though the 5.1 mix does come alive in certain scenes involving music. The jam session scene provides a dose of powerful sound, and the many songs in the film are delivered terrifically. Dialogue delivery is, of course, clear as a bell!

Features **

Included on this disc is a featurette titled “Behind the Reign: The Making of Reign Over Me”, which features interviews (mostly with Mike Binder) concerning the making of the film. Also there is a photo montage called “A Still Reign”, an extended jam session sequence with Sandler and Cheadle, and bonus previews for additional Sony releases.

Summary:

Reign Over Me is a winning character based drama, with emotional aspects that for once doesn’t feel manipulative, unlike so many dramas. Sandler delivers his strongest acting work to date, and the rest of the cast is equally strong.

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