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Reign Over Me

2007-10-02 12:32
What it’s about:

When Alan (Don Cheadle), a frustrated Manhattan dentist, runs into his old college roommate Charlie (Adam Sandler), he hardly recognizes him. Charlie lost his entire family in the 11 September attacks and, to cope, he has simply withdrawn from reality. Hoping to help his old friend, Alan insinuates himself into Charlie’s rather odd world, but soon finds he receives more help than he dispenses.

What we thought of it:

You have to hand it to Mike Binder. He’s easily one of the most underappreciated writer/directors in his home country, even after the relative success of The Upside of Anger. And yet he doggedly keeps making the kind of deceptively intelligent and uncomfortably perceptive films that his fellow Americans seem unable to appreciate. What’s more, if Reign Over Me is anything to go by, he’s really starting to get into his stride.

You could argue that Binder has essentially making the same film his whole career. At the very least you have to admit there’s only one subject he cares about – the vagaries and beauties of the human heart. Even earlier in his career when he was making low budget comedies like The Sex Monster, there was always a sense of exploring the complexities of human behaviour and emotion.

It’s this slippery, exploratory approach to filmmaking that has earned him so much scorn from US critics and audiences. In a Binder film, the journey is always more important than the destination, and this has never been more true than in Reign Over Me.

In fact the physical journeys in the film – following Sandler and Cheadle as they rove through the streets of Manhattan on a scooter – are the most powerful and memorable in the film. The sense of freedom and escape, of never looking back, of losing oneself in the city are spine tinglingly palpable.

They are also analogies, of course, for the inner journeys that both Sandler and Cheadle are making in the movie, but to pigeonhole the meaning quite so neatly is a disservice to the complexity of Binder’s writing. What’s clear is that both men are running – one from grief and another from stagnation – and that Binder wants us to experience that flight, however uncomfortable it might get.

As a rule Binder’s films rely heavily on his actors, and, as usual, he has picked a great cast. Intelligence and subtlety are in short supply in Hollywood, but Don Cheadle has them both in spades.

Reign Over Me is largely his film, with Adam Sandler acting as more of a foil than a protagonist. Like Binder, Cheadle is an often overlooked talent, who manages to combine credibility with likeability.

Not that Sandler doesn’t have his moments – there are times when he is extremely convincing. But all too often his inner clown overwhelms his judgement. Granted this is the unhappy clown - wailing and tearing at his clothes to some effect – but it’s the clown nonetheless. Still, it’s only at the film’s emotional climax that Sandler’s performance really suffers.

As for the supporting cast, Binder can’t resist playing the sleaze bag as he did in Upside of Anger. You have to wonder if it’s ironic, modest, or if Binder just doesn’t trust anyone else to play such unlikeable characters with such gusto. Oh, and look out for Donald Sutherland as the judge – the wiley old dog steals every scene he is in.

Reign Over Me isn’t Binder’s masterpiece – we still have a while to wait for that. The film is too prone to distracting unevenness, and the shifts between comedy and tragedy are sometimes jarring. The film’s climax also comes very close to slipping into melodrama, a fate not helped by Sandler’s overacting during it.

But those faults shouldn’t keep you from seeing it. If you enjoyed The Upside of Anger or Lost in Translation, then this is your kind of film. At the very least see it so that you can rove the streets of New York on a scooter – it’s a sensation that’s very hard to forget.

- Alistair Fairweather
Reign Over Me Writer / director Mike Binder may keep making the same film, but he gets better every time. His latest is a slippery little treasure that’s definitely worth seeing.

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