Review: Reign Over Me (2007)

Starring: Don Cheadle, Adam Sandler, Jada Plinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, and brief appearances by Donald Sutherland and B.J. Novak
Written and Directed By: Mike Binder

I was thumbing through Entertainment Weekly a few days ago and I came across a review of Reign Over Me from Lisa Schwarzbaum, one of EW's two abrasively mediocre movie reviewers (Owen Gleiberman being the other. Avoid both when possible). I try not to read any of her reviews all that closely - you can always tell when a reviewer has jumped the fence between merely being caustically blunt and into that strange world where each review is a platform for elaborating their intellectualism-in-film theories. There's a slimy arrogance to it - "let me deign to explain how film works to you so you can understand this movie before you see it." Now, I may be on my way there, but I think it's safe to say I'm not there yet. For example, I used "caustically" a few sentences back without really being one hundred percent sure what it means, and I'm just trying to keep moving on this paragraph so no one will notice. It's things like this that keep your ego in check.

The reason I bring up Schwarzbaum's review is that a phrase in this one jumped out - she referred to the film as "a strange, black-and-blue therapeutic drama equally mottled with likable good intentions and agitating clumsiness." She was probably up all night on that sentence. But she stumbled on something in the midst of it.

Reign Over Me is, in fact, a black-and-blue drama. Binder paints this film in a very specific color tone - the buzzing yellow-black of a city night, the cold blue of an unwelcome concrete morning. Even when light floods in during the day, it's never seems warm or welcoming - giant office windows open to a flat, cloudy sky, the characters wander city streets in that strange place halfway between sunshine and downpour. And none of it is accidental - the whole film plays like a slowly fading bruise.

Sandler plays a man who lost his family in 9/11, an event which paints a vaguely unsettling backdrop over the film - he didn't just lose his family in a plane crash, he lost them in a plane crash that we already feel deeply connected to. It seems strange and jarring to put imaginary people on a very real plane in a way that it never has before - I never felt that Jack and Rose were a slight to the real casualties of the Titanic, for instance - but Binder isn't as much about milking a tragedy as he is trying desperately to connect you to a bewilderingly complicated individual.

But it's Sandler's performance that the movie must (and does) center itself on; he's the wild card here and everyone knows it. Cheadle is remarkable as always - it's a real mark of an actor's skill set when after a long career of sidekicks and bit parts, an actor does one memorable lead role (Hotel Rwanda) and people are so immersed in his performance in that they become completely unsurprised by any Academy Award-type performances that he gives afterwards. He was that good in that movie, and he's been that good since. He's that good here. But incredibly, Sandler's the real standout this time.

Sandler knows that he's been dealt a tough hand to play, and he delivers in a way he's never delivered before. Sandler's done serious roles and done them well (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish), and he's shown perfect capability at mixing serious acting with his comedy at times (Big Daddy, Anger Management), but he's never been this serious before, and it's neat to see him pull out some serious-actor type baggage for this character. What's especially neat about it is that Sandler doesn't push the character into some strange unSandlerlike realm of method characters, he plays it as if he himself had lost his whole world five years ago. The pacing, the joking, the tone of voice is all vintage Sandler, but it's all belied by the haunted, uncertain look in his eye. Sandler'll get some props for his work in this role, but I don't think he'll get enough. You buy pathos from a guy who made you laugh at burning poop jokes for fifteen years. That's not easy work.

There's been a lot of criticism that the movie isn't cohesive enough, and I'll admit it's sometimes a little bit of an uneven ride, punctuated by extraneous music cues of "Love, Reign O'er Me." Not everything ties up the way you'd like it to, but it's truly cathartic watching Sandler try to break free of his shell. It's worth the bumpy road.

Rating: Lessee here, minus one star for missteps in the Cheadle-Smith storyline, minus one for never really giving us that good a reason to have Saffron Burrows in this movie at all, and minus one for an awkwardly filmed police-brutality segment. Minus three stars to start off with, not too bad. Then, let's give two stars for Sandler's performance plus one for Cheadle's, and then a star for the performances of Smith/Burrows/Tyler/etc., one star for the fantastic "Love, Reign O'er Me" cover than Pearl Jam does, one for color tone and one for those lovely night sequences of Sandler on his scooter, whizzing through empty New York streets, and that brings us up to... four stars. Sounds about perfect. Four stars it is.