Reign Over Me

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This review was written for the festival screening of "Reign Over Me." 

AUSTIN -- Comedy-inflected dramas about grief are hard enough to get right when the loss at hand is purely fictional, tailored to suit one story's dramatic needs. How much harder it is when a character's loss is linked to a real catastrophe that each member of the audience has processed in a deeply individual way.

"Reign Over Me" makes the effort seem natural, displaying sensitivity without over-reverence, tacitly acknowledging a nation's (and a city's) trauma without ever suggesting that its character is somehow a stand-in. It doesn't exploit our emotions about Sept. 11; it simply tells a story that exists because of what happened that day -- one that should resonate with a wide, appreciative audience.

Barely alluding to the World Trade Center attacks, the script makes delicate reference to "the man whose family was on the plane" and leaves it there. The man in question, Adam Sandler's Charlie Fineman, has purged the event from his mind, willfully rejecting any memory connected to the wife and three daughters who died.

A dentist who has abandoned his practice and all the relationships formed during his marriage, he now relies on insurance money and lives in the city as few professionals can, haunting the streets at off-hours on a scooter.

This isn't a Manhattan of postcard skylines but of street-level (if solitary) life, of take-out Chinese and St. Mark's Place record shops -- a headphone-cocooned world punctured by the arrival of Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a dental-school roommate who hasn't seen Fineman since before his marriage. Fineman claims not to recognize him at first, but eventually warms up, bonding with the family man over video games and vintage LPs.

Whenever Johnson alludes to his past life, though, Fineman erupts in frustrated violence, accusing Johnson of being sent by those (his in-laws, it turns out) who want to push him into grieving over what he refuses to acknowledge.

Sandler's bottled-pain potential has been exploited before (to best dramatic effect in "Punch-Drunk Love"), but it feels new here, further removed from any familiar schtick or comic intent. When it's time for him to be funny, as it often is in the film's light-footed first half, that's fresh as well, with an ease that keeps "Reign" from feeling like an affliction drama.

It's a graceful performance that screenwriter-director Mike Binder matches. From the opening images of Sandler's Go-ped sailing through lonely intersections to the simplicity of Rolfe Kent's stripped-down score, the picture insists on intimacy. False universalities aren't just avoided in the film's aesthetics, but in its plot: the biggest roadblock in Fineman's life comes from those who expect his grief to resemble their own.

That conflict, with in-laws who seemingly need to see tears to know their daughter's husband loved her, comes to a head in the closest thing the movie has to a weak spot: a court hearing in which Charlie is threatened with hospitalization, and an unscrupulous lawyer goes over the top trying to push his buttons. For a few minutes (here, and in the emotional assist Charlie gets from a supporting character), the picture feels almost ordinary -- a hazard one notices only because it has been avoided so successfully through most of this deeply heartfelt film.

REIGN OVER ME
Columbia Pictures
Mr. Madison Prods.
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Mike Binder
Producers: Jack Binder, Michael Rotenberg
Executive producers: Jack Giarraputo, Lynwood Spinks
Cinematographer: Russ T. Alsobrook
Production designer: Christian Winter
Music: Rolfe Kent
Co-producer: Rachel Zimmerman
Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott
Editors: Steve Edwards, Jeremy Roush
Cast:
Charlie Fineman: Adam Sandler
Alan Johnson: Don Cheadle
Janeane Johnson: Jada Pinkett Smith
Angela Oakhurst: Liv Tyler
Donna Remar: Saffron Burrows
Bryan Sugarman: Mike Binder
Running time -- 128 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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