I don’t like remembering.”
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to shut a man down and sometimes it happens little by little over time and no one knows until its already happened. “Reign Over Me” is the story of two such men who find themselves in similar positions despite the drastically different paths that got them there. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is a successful New York dentist, who has his own practice, a gorgeous apartment and a family that loves him. He is coasting comfortably on his success until he happens to cross his college roommate on the street one day. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) doesn’t do any coasting, except on his motorized scooter. Charlie lost his wife, three daughters and family dog on September 11th, 2001. They were on one of the planes that crashed into the towers and he was on his way to meet them at the airport when it happened. Charlie had his life taken from him in one moment while Alan has let his slip through his fingers over the course of his entire life.
Writer/Director, Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”), has placed all the elements carefully to allow for these two men to heal each other only he has forgotten to connect them or give them any personality of their own. The film itself does its own coasting as it presumes that its supposed bravery to deal with post-traumatic stress experienced by those touched directly by the events of September 11th is original enough to sustain itself. The presumption is that anyone with a soul will allow their heart to go out to this man because they can still feel the pain from that day. I have a soul and I still feel the pain but my heart doesn’t automatically go out to a man just because you tell me he’s ruined. Even Sandler, who showed great dramatic promise in “Punch-Drunk Love”, relies too heavily on audience expectation, allowing his Dylan-esque mess of a haircut and inability to sit still to show his hurt. The alternative is to show what Charlie went through that led him to this place in his life but no one needs to be bombarded with that imagery again. Only, the planes crashing into the towers was just the beginning of Charlie’s experience. The emptiness that followed is what specifically hollowed Charlie Fineman and there is no trace of that pain in the film until it is too late.
Binder also had a difficult time balancing out the two separate experiences of his characters. As Charlie has the showier, more intense trauma to deal with, Alan’s lessons to learn become an afterthought. The divide is uneven but I almost wish Alan’s plight had been given little to no thought. It is both tired and tedious to tell of a man who achieved all of his goals but somehow eluded happiness. It is then also all too simple and increasingly irritating to blame these problems on the wife. Alan’s wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) makes him dinner, wants to speak openly with him and spend time together learning new things. She is making an effort and doing her part and all he can do is resent her for it because it’s a lot easier than facing the fact that he is responsible for his own happiness. Helping Charlie becomes a convenient way to avoid both his own problems and his wife. Of course, he learns that his wife is not to blame for his dissatisfaction but you know that he will from the moment you see there is a problem. There is no other solution that could lead both the film and the character to resolution. In fact, ultimate resolution is what removes all urgency from the film. Charlie and Alan meet and there is no question that they will learn from each other. So obvious is the point of this film that it becomes entirely predictable.
“Reign Over Me” opens and closes with shots of the streets of New York City. As the people scurry through the maze, it is obvious that there are stories of pain and loss from September 11th still waiting to be told. This one however never quite feels real. Instead, it feels calculated and constructed which is made even sadder as it misses the emotional pay off it seems so bent on getting. Charlie doesn’t want to remember that day. He doesn’t want to remember everything he once had, that he was once happy without having to try to be. He is hardly alone though. Many have tried to forget that day and the wounds that were suffered. I seriously doubt that “Reign Over Me” is the way they will want to remember again.
Review by Joseph Bélanger