Reign Over Me

Starring Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle and Jada Pinkett Smith. Directed Mike Binder.
Running Time: 124 mins.
Rated: Rated M.
Reign Over Me is a warm and involving film about friendship and loss, that shuns Hollywood formula and plumps for emotional truth. Filmed in New York, Don Cheadle (The Rat Pack, Hotel Rwanda, Crash) plays a Manhattan dentist Alan Johnston, who leaves work one day and spies an old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), buzzing the streets on his scooter.

Charlie lost his family on September 11 five years previously, and apart from the delight he feels at seeing an old friend again, Alan is keen to express the sadness he felt on hearing about Charlie's loss. But when they meet on a street corner, Charlie, with untidy hair, crumpled clothes, and wearing a distracted smile, denies knowing him.

Driven by inner needs of his own, Alan perseveres with Charlie, visiting him in his barren, furniture-less flat and braving Charlie's formidable landlady who is protective of him. Alan is going through a difficult time himself. A successful dentist, he has a palatial apartment, a loving wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), and two children. But Alan is conscious of something missing from his life, and the bond with Charlie gets stronger the more he spends time with the bereaved man, who keeps memories at bay by listening incessantly to music through headphones, playing video games, or jamming along with old vinyl records from the 70s and 80s.

Neglecting his own family, and pursued by a neurotic patient, Donna Remar (Saffron Burrows), who unjustly accuses him of trying to seduce her, Alan seeks help for Charlie through a psychotherapist, Dr Angela Oakhurst, who works in the same building as him, and from whom Alan in round-about ways, has sought help for himself. But the break-through for Charlie, when it comes, leads to near-catastrophe, and a confrontation with both his in-laws and a judge (Donald Sutherland), before true healing can begin.

Well-scripted and impressively acted, Reign Over Me is a moving and unusual film in that it refuses to dwell unduly on the 9/11 calamity that haunts not only Charlie but all Americans, New Yorkers especially. This enables Reign Over Me to speak broadly about loss, and the terrible dysfunction caused by grief of all kinds in the lives of individuals and their families, while at the same time not in any way diminishing this terrible event that has traumatised the nation.

Within this wider context, decent Alan, a loving father, husband, and conscientious dentist, is shown to have lost his sense of self in the pursuit of material security and conspicuous consumption. This situation is in no way similar to Charlie who has lost his entire family, a loving wife and beloved children, in one ghastly moment in time. But there is sufficient overlap, the unnerving of one's sense of self when confronted by circumstances beyond our control or understanding, to make Alan acutely sympathetic to Charlie, and grateful, ultimately, for what he has.

Similarly, Reign Over Us looks compassionately at both Charlie's parents-in-law, who are also struggling to come to grips with their enormous loss, and Alan's unsolicited suitor Donna Rea (played with sensitivity by Burrows, Troy), whose strange behaviour is likewise shown to be caused by grief, in her case the result of a disastrous marriage, and subsequent loss of self-esteem.

The two stars of Reign Over Me (named after The Who's landmark album 'Quadrephrenia'), bring great believability to their roles. Adam Sandler, in a role similar in depth and complexity to his character in Punch-Drunk Love, has never been better, proving that the best clowns draw humour from the same rich well of emotion that produces tragedy, while Don Cheadle once again makes integrity, and credibility in acting look easy.

A welcome cameo by Donald Sutherland brings just the right admixture of gravity and humanity to his role as Judge Raines, while Mike Binder, a stand-up comic with an impressive list of finely wrought independent movies to his credit (The Search for John Gissing, The Upside of Anger), also has a small part as Charlie's business manager, Sugarman.

Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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