“Reign Over Me,” the first post-9/11 movie to center around the aftermath of the tragedy rather than the day itself, is painfully aware of its position in cinematic history. Following “World Trade Center” and “United 93,” whose tepid box office returns were credited to a lack of audience interest in reliving the day, “Reign Over Me” looks smug in its distance from the attacks.
“Reign” enters a current-day Manhattan and follows the reunion of college roommates Alan Johnson, a play-it-safe dentist with marital problems played by Don Cheadle, and Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) as a former dentist who has essentially shut down after his wife and three daughters died on 9/11.
Although the film’s web site giddily includes “9/11” in the second sentence of its tease, the movie constantly pats itself on the back for how “tastefully” the controversial issue is handled in the script. No direct references to 9/11 appear in the script until about 90 minutes into the movie. Up to that point, characters awkwardly avoid mentioning it by name, often at the cost of realism. Instead of simply stating “September 11” or “terrorist attacks,” it’s “the plane crashes” or veiled references to “evil men.” Director and writer Mike Binder seems to believe that by avoiding direct references, he will avoid the accusations of exploitation that plagued Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass. Finally, toward the end of the movie, Charlie’s mother-in-law gives an over-the-top speech about the attacks that serves as a shout-out to dissenters, but the diatribe only takes away from the narrative and fails to offer any sort of fresh perspective.
The truth is that the movie, which is being tagged as a “9/11 drama,” has very little to do with September 11 at all. In fact, Charlie’s family could have died in any manner to the same effect; “Reign Over Me” is a movie about how we respond to tragedy and loss. Its most interesting points center on the tricky debate between intervening when friends are troubled and letting them find their own way. To put it plainly, one is left wondering: Why include September 11 at all? And if, for some reason, it must be a plot element, don’t sidestep around it and treat it as any other disaster — utilize, rather than assume, the poignant emotions already primed in the audience.
What makes the 9/11 muddling even more frustrating is that there is a very good, profound movie buried beneath all this evasion. Cheadle delivers once again, as Alan teeters between restraint and spontaneity, balancing his constraining marriage and desire to let loose. Sandler channels his own performance in “Punch Drunk Love,” taking yet another try at “slapstick comedian playing a restrained, quiet man in a dramatic role.” Sandler oversimplifies Charlie and portrays him as a man of two extremes — either bizarre and demure or violently aggressive — never bridging the gap even for a moment. Sandler may also take the fact that his character suppresses his memories a little too literally.
Sandler’s performance does, however, give Cheadle a lot to work with, and it’s refreshing to see a movie that focuses on a platonic male-male relationship. Alan and Charlie’s friendship feels surprisingly real and, despite its extenuating circumstances, understandable. In the end, the movie has more to say about the people surrounding a suffering friend — Alan and his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), old friends and Liv Tyler as a psychologist — than the sufferer himself.
As a contrast to Charlie, the film offers Donna Remar (Meredith Grey’s doppelganger Saffron Burrows), who becomes over-spontaneous and emotional when she discovers her husband’s secret life. The contrast is effective, and Remar’s pain feels more real than Charlie’s, perhaps because her tragedy remains nameless, allowing the focus to be on her recovery rather than her past.
The film ultimately makes a bold claim: that Alan, who is originally presented as living the good life, is as lost as the widowed Charlie because Alan is prevented from doing the things he wants to do. And if everyone leaves Charlie alone and simply supports him, rather than committing him, he’ll come back to sanity when he’s ready. On the face of it, the argument seems somewhat ridiculous, but thanks to consistently strong writing and some clever visual repetition, the film is quite persuasive. The last 20 minutes of the movie center around the social and political implications, as Donald Sutherland serves as a cliche-spewing judge presiding over the court case deciding if Charlie will be forced into a government facility.
Sutherland’s omniscient platitudes might have been more useful in another context — explaining the film’s title. Although a song entitled “Reign O’er Me” is prominently featured, the clunky title has little pertinence to the plot. The film does, however, reign over its shortcomings to redeem itself. Almost.