There’s a certain aptness in the fact that Mike Binder chose to end Reign Over Me not with the Who’s version of the song “Love Reign O’er Me,” from which his film gets its title, but with a cover version by Pearl Jam. It isn’t that there’s anything especially wrong with the Pearl Jam recording. It goes out of its way to sound as much like the Who version as possible—even to replicating Pete Townshend’s synthesizer programming. That, however, is exactly the point: The cover brings nothing new to the table and feels slightly artificial, like something done by a tribute band. But that’s what makes it fit the film, which feels equally redundant and artificial.
The movie has two hooks. The first is that it’s a post-9/11 drama, focusing on the psychological and emotional meltdown of its main character, whose entire family (and dog, no less) was on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. The second is that this character, Charlie Fineman, is played by Adam Sandler in his “first” dramatic role—never mind that his role in P.T. Anderson’s vastly superior Punch-Drunk Love (2002) wasn’t exactly comedic.
The first hook is virtually tangential, since the film veers away from the 9/11 aspect at every turn, being little more than the device that plunges Charlie into the angry denial and uncommunicative despair that allows old college roommate Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) to enter his life and help him reconnect with the world.
The second hook … well, Sandler isn’t bad in the role, but it’s not only as close to the old “shameless Oscar bid by playing a mentally-challenged character” as it can get without actually being one, but it remains as firmly grounded in the Sandlerian realm of barely contained violent anger as in Punch-Drunk Love or as in any of his “let’s punch the crap out of someone” comedies. The first aspect of the role, of course, allows him a variety of showy tics, grimaces and fetal-position body movements that signify “real acting” in this kind of characterization. The second aspect—dealing with Sandler’s anger issues—is just plain getting old. P.T. Anderson managed to make something out of it in Punch-Drunk Love by deconstructing Sandler’s screen persona to try to get to the core of the anger. But that was P.T. Anderson; this is Mike Binder—and Mike Binder is about as much P.T. Anderson as Pearl Jam is the Who.
Binder is at bottom a compulsive Hollywoodizer. As a result, his important drama is ultimately not a lot more than a sometimes engaging buddy/odd couple picture with important themes and some dime-store psychiatry poured over it in a generous serving. The clichés abound: Charlie and his would-be savior have a “meet cute” beginning, while Donald Sutherland as the sharp-tongued judge must have been told to study Liam Dunn in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) for pointers. But what’s more, the whole setup between Charlie and Alan plays like some alternate universe Laurel and Hardy short with poor Jada Pinkett Smith (standing in for the ever-popular Mae Busch) as the smothering wife who won’t let Alan have any fun with the boys. The woman doesn’t think it’s proper for her husband to stay out all night with Charlie and not even bother to call home. Apparently, Binder can’t understand this, and has reduced her character to a mom-like authority figure who exists to be outwitted so her husband can do manly things like spend the night at a marathon of Mel Brooks movies. (Just in case the viewer might get the wrong idea about this male-bonding thing, both Sandler and Cheadle have been given derogatory “faggot” remarks to deliver.)
Considering the bizarrely misogynistic tone Binder evidenced in his last theatrical release, the supposed “woman’s picture” The Upside of Anger (2005), Binder’s take on Pinkett Smith’s character isn’t all that surprising. In that picture, Binder presented his female-centric cast as being in need of men to set them right. Here, the women are off on the sidelines, but manage to include Pinkett Smith’s killjoy wife, Melinda Dillon’s monster mother-in-law and Saffron Burrows’ sexually voracious nut-case, who threatens to sue Alan for improper behavior when he declines her offer of oral gratification in the office of his dental practice. (That she later transforms into a potential romantic partner for Charlie—she can see that his heart is broken—is a separate can of worms.)
To some degree this is functional stuff, since Binder isn’t about to miss the opportunity to trot out the timeworn—and movie-worn—notion that people with severe mental problems are better and more in tune with life than so-called normal people. As a result, Charlie can’t just be helped by Alan, it has to be a two-way street—in that nice and tidy way that exists more in the movies than in real life. That tidiness is finally what keeps Reign Over Me from being more than a mildly entertaining fable. Every time it raises anything like a valid point, it has to sidestep the issue so that it doesn’t lose its feel-good vibe. The results are watchable, but smack too much of wax fruit. Rated R for language and some sexual references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke