Two vividly drawn characters desperately needing to jumpstart their stalled lives fortuitously connect in “Reign Over Me.” Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle head a strong cast in this affecting drama of friendship and regeneration. Ironically, however, Sandler’s compelling performance in an atypically serious role — one even more emotionally complex than his troubled character in “Punch-Drunk Love” — may complicate efforts to sell this decidedly unfunny March 23 release. But Sony will need every iota of the thesp’s star power to help overcome any lingering audience resistance to pics dealing with 9/11 and its aftermath.
Written and directed by Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”), “Reign” pivots on the chance encounter of two former college roommates at precisely the right moment in each man’s life.
Alan Johnson (Cheadle), a successful Manhattan dentist, finds himself overwhelmed by his responsibilities toward his family — including his beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), their children and his aging parents — and his demanding business partners. Feeling increasingly detached and discontented, he’s almost grateful for the chance to focus on someone in far worse shape: Charlie Fineman (Sandler, looking like a scruffy, ’60s-era Bob Dylan), a formerly gregarious fellow who shut down almost completely after his wife and children perished in one of the doomed planes on Sept. 11, 2001.
When he’s not endlessly playing videogames or refurbishing his kitchen, Charlie aimlessly traverses the streets of New York on a motor scooter. But even when he’s outside, he continues to block out the world — and any unpleasant memories — by blasting ’70s pop and rock through his headphones.
Simply by hanging out with his former roomie (and fellow dental school grad), Alan manages to draw Charlie back toward something like normalcy. But even with the help of an insightful therapist (a credible and creditable Liv Tyler), there are limits to how far Alan can coax Charlie along. And that isn’t nearly far enough for Charlie’s in-laws (Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon), who resent being denied access to their last link to their lost daughter and grandchildren.
Throughout most of “Reign Over Me,” Binder takes a deliberately paced and casually discursive approach to storytelling, allowing his actors all the time and space they need to convey their complexities and reveal telling details of character. Many scenes are infused with an air of spontaneity that is by turns thrilling and portentous, so that it’s often hard to predict whether an encounter or a conversation is building toward a comic-relief punchline or a deadly serious punch-out.
There is, of course, the predictable scene when Charlie finally breaks through and begins to discuss specific details of the day he lost his family. Even here, however, Binder and his actors manage to surprise: Sandler suddenly starts to talk, Cheadle and Tyler listen — attentively, as though fearing anything they do might spoil the moment — and the aud is spellbound.
During the 10 minutes or so, unfortunately, Binder tries too hard, too hastily, to wrap things up with an all-too-pat resolution. And even though some supporting players make memorable impressions with a minimum of screen time — most notably, Donald Sutherland as a sternly compassionate judge and Paula Newsome as Alan’s sassy receptionist — other actors are unable to fully flesh out roles that, apparently, were diminished in the editing room.
Still, Sandler (never making a false step while maneuvering though vertiginous mood swings) and Cheadle (deftly commingling instinctive decency with quiet desperation) are individually excellent, and bring out the best in each other. And the pic itself transcends its real but relatively minor flaws to score a satisfyingly potent impact.
Russ Alsobrook’s high-def digital lensing subtly and skillfully sustains the mood of anxiety that percolates below the surface even during humorous moments. The soundtrack includes well-chosen pop and rock hits, including two versions — both the Who’s original, and a fine cover by Pearl Jam — of “Love, Reign O’er Me.”