When not riding around Manhattan on a scooter, cocooned by the iTunes that drown out the outside world, ratty-haired, mumble-mouthed Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) sits on his couch playing the PS2 hit Shadow of the Colossus. Charlie, it turns out, is trapped in the shadow of his own personal/national colossus: 9/11, when he lost his wife and three daughters aboard one of the planes bound for the World Trade Center. Reign Over Me charts this damaged soul’s gradual emergence from a post-traumatic stress disorder haze through his relationship with Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), an old college roommate and dentist whose constricting family life has left him with his own nagging form of dissatisfaction. It’s a path that writer-director Mike Binder treats with a mixture of gentle sensitivity, awkward humor, and tired clichés, a combination that prevents his film from ever fully achieving tonal or narrative stability, but—surprisingly enough—doesn’t keep it from tackling issues of tragic loss, survivor’s guilt, and psychological defense mechanisms with disarming sincerity.
Charlie’s coping mechanism is to suppress (to the point of erasure) any family memories, a self-inflicted negation that the unexpectedly genuine Sandler ably portrays, the comedian reconfiguring his trademark man-child goofiness, as well as the fury that underscores said persona, into a portrait of destructive internalization. Though his performance has slightly more melodramatic showiness than his similar turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler only stumbles significantly when he too vigorously stresses his comedic affectations (schlumpy body language, slurred speech); otherwise, he’s the most convincing element of this often mishmashed and formulaic tale. Binder nonetheless begins by focusing on Alan, whose unhappiness with his boring, safe marriage to Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) is meant to dovetail with Charlie’s malaise. However, the fact that Alan’s life is generally perfect—his biggest problem being that female patients have a tendency to throw themselves at him in the office—sabotages this schematic parallel, which is so lopsided that it throws the film’s equilibrium off-kilter (and not, unfortunately, in a manner meant to cleverly mirror Charlie’s and New York’s post-9/11 disarray).
Cheadle is charming but because Alan’s discontent seems petty when compared to Charlie’s crisis, his ensuing jealousy over the widower’s “freedom” feels phony. Such a sentiment also pervades a sitcom-ish sexual harassment subplot involving Saffron Burrows graciously offering her oral services to the good dentist, and intensifies during third-act courtroom shenanigans in which Charlie’s in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon) and Donald Sutherland’s judge take turns trying to out-cartoon each other. Reign Over Me‘s slapdash latter half carelessly ignores Alan’s personal problems and totally dispatches with the dull Janeane. Even so, Binder manages to prop up his story’s sloppiest, sappiest moments by allowing Charlie to bluntly and effectively articulate his misery (and his means of handling it). It’s a saving grace that helps moderately buoy this bruised-and-battered portrait of inconsolable grief, and one that, to the film’s lasting credit, is matched by a final display of faith not in feel-good recovery but, rather, in the less cheery, more realistic belief that some losses are so cataclysmic, it’s next to impossible to ever truly emerge from the resultant rubble.