After five years, Hollywood is finally venturing into the still-tender territory of 9/11 and its aftermath. Now that it's gotten past the respectful historical dramatizations, the tragedy's long-term implications are popping up in everything from intimate dramas to politically charged action films.
Birmingham native Mike Binder, who has used the bruised interiors of difficult characters as the backbone of his work, is no stranger to pain, loss and anger. His engaging but flawed Upside of Anger demonstrated an instinct for the way real life bounces between the comedic and tragic at unexpected moments. With Reign Over Me, his post-9/11 weeper, Binder tackles the collateral damage of epic tragedy and how ordinary people struggle to cope with extraordinary grief. It's a bold and surprisingly involving effort that, ultimately, doesn't quite work.
Adam Sandler stars as Charlie Fineman, a dentist who lost his wife and daughters during the 9/11 attacks. Childlike and antisocial, he haunts Manhattan like a broken ghost, cruising its streets on a motor scooter, iPod headphones wrapping his ears. Spotting him on his way home from work, an old college roommate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), is shocked to learn how far from life his former classmate has retreated. Determined to resuscitate him, Alan discovers that their rekindled friendship is as much a lifeline for him as it is for Charlie. Both men are lost, Charlie to denial and heartache, Alan to the hollow trappings of success.
Binder views his character's disconnection as metaphors for post-9/11 grieving, a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder of the soul. He sees the pain and disorders of tragedy as something that cannot be denied, that life is something to embrace rather than hide from. It's an ambitious and noble conceit but Binder isn't enough of an artist to pull it off. Reign Over Me has many fine moments and even its most manipulative scenes are perceptive and sincere, but Binder struggles to find a consistent tone. The comedic moments are light but awkward and the drama is pokey and unfocused, overburdened with unnecessary plot elements. In the end, his film never takes us on an emotionally penetrating journey but rather presents a disjointed collection of ideas and sentiments. What keeps the wheels spinning are the performances.
Unlike his comedies, Sandler spins his autistic man-child rage into something compelling here. Like his turn in Punch Drunk Love, context makes all the difference in the world. Charlie's child-like behavior is both a weapon and a shield, a way to keep the world at bay. There's a vulnerable dignity behind his deranged intensity. The awkwardness and hollowed-out anger reveal just how wounded Charlie truly is.
Cheadle anchors the film terrifically, using his talent for communicating decency and compassion. Unfortunately, Alan's domestic travails are a poor balance for Charlie's crippling sorrow. Binder gives him problems contrived to give the character texture for texture's sake, occasionally crossing into sitcom territory. Despite the obvious chemistry between Cheadle and Jada Pinkett Smith who plays his sharp-elbowed wife little of Alan's story feels organic.
The rest of the cast there mostly to service Binder's emotional plot points tackle even the most implausible moments with conviction. In particular, Liv Tyler and Saffron Burrows are wonderful to look at and fine actresses but neither is given a full-bodied character to explore.
While Reign Over Me does a good job of illustrating the conflicting and contradictory of real-world emotions, its narrative spine could be made of sterner stuff. Trying to end with cautious optimism, Binder uncomfortably shifts his last act to a clumsy courtroom drama that overreaches (but doesn't derail) with sentimentality. Even with its shortcomings, the film's meditation on loneliness and loss burrows into you, finds a sympathetic muscle and squeezes out a few tears. Binder's poignant and laudable message is that love be it friendship or romance brings both heartache and hope, and without memory there can be no will to live.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.