Love hurts. That, I think, is the main message Mike Binder's newest film Reign Over Me brings across. Whether that love has caused your relationship to become stagnant, or has brought anger from the one you love cheating for years, or has broken your heart to the point of being unable to open yourself up to the world, love hurts. The great thing about this film, however, is not in its portrayal of these lost souls trying to let their past heartbreaks go, but in the eventual restart of new bonds for the future. No one in this drama is perfect; they are all at some degree trapped emotionally in relationships that they can't free themselves from alone. There is some heavy subject material here and I credit Binder for never making the story turn into a political diatribe, but instead infusing the serious moments with some real nice comedic bits allowing the tale to stay character-based and small in scale compared to the epic event that looms overhead. What could have become a trite vehicle for opinions on how 9-11 effected us all, ends up being a story about two men and a connection they share that is the only thing which can save their lives from a life of depression and regret.
This is a new career performance for Adam Sandler. I like to think that my favorite director Paul Thomas Anderson was the first to see the childish, pent-up anger in his stupid comedies as something to use dramatically. The juvenility of a character like Billy Madison allows for laughs and potty humor, but also can be used to show a repressed man, shy and shutout to the world around hima man with no confidence that needs an event of compassion to break him from his shell. Anderson let Sandler do just that in his masterpiece Punch-Drunk Love and Mike Binder has taken it one step further. Sandler plays former dentist Charlie Fineman whose wife and three kids were killed in one of the planes that took down the World Trade Center on 9-11. That one moment crushed any life that he had and as a result, he became reclusive and started to believe he couldn't remember anything that happened before that day. He really delivers a moving portrait of a man trying to keep up the charade in his head while those around him, those that love him, try and open him up to the reality of what happened and what the future holds. Always on edge and ready to snap at any moment when something is mentioned to spark the memory of his perished family, he goes through life with his iPod and headphones, shutting out everything so as not to be tempted remember.
Reign Over Me is not about Charlie Fineman though, it is about dentist and family man Alan Johnson. A man that has trapped himself into a marriage and dental practice that both have stagnated into monotony, Johnson needs as much help in his life as his old college roommate Charlie does. Played perfectly by the always brilliant Don Cheadle, Johnson has lost his backbone to try and change his life. He has no friends and when he sees Charlie, by chance, one day, his life evolves into something he hasn't felt in 15 years. He revels in the chance to go out with an old friend no matter how much he has changed from the death of his family. Cheadle's character wants to revert back to the college days of hanging out and Sandler's doesn't mind because all that was before he met his wife. The two men get what they want and allow themselves to grow close despite the years of solitude that used to rule their lives. Once they begin opening up though, it is inevitable that the subject of the tragedy will creep up and test the façade they have created for themselves.
The supporting cast does an amazing job helping keep up appearances for the two leads. Jada Pinkett Smith has never been an actress that impressed me and throughout the film played the tough as nails wife nicely, but it is her final scene on the phone with Cheadle that really showed me something different and true. Liv Tyler is a bit out of her element as a psychiatrist, but the movie calls her on this fact and makes the miscasting, perfect casting. The many small cameos are also effective, even writer/director Mike Binder's role as Sandler's old best friend and accountant, (my only gripe here is why he feels the need to put his name in the opening credits as an actor when it is everywhere, considering it is his film). Last but not least is the beautiful Saffron Burrows. She is a great actress and plays the love- crushed divorcée trying to put her life back together wonderfully. A role that seems comic relief at first, but ends up being an integral aspect for what is to come.
Binder has crafted one of the best dramatic character studies I have seen in a long time. The direction is almost flawless, (the blurring between cuts and characters in the fore/ background really annoyed me in the beginning), the acting superb, and the story true to itself, never taking the easy way out or wrapping itself up with a neatly tied bow at the conclusion. Even the music was fantastic and used to enhance, not to lead us emotionally, (why after two great uses of the titular song by The Who did Binder feel the need to use the inferior Eddie Veddar remake for the end, I don't know, but it did unfortunately stick out for me). Reign Over Me is a film about love and how although it can cause the worst pain imaginable, it can also save us from regret and allow us to once again see the world as a place of beauty and hope.
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