As Charlie Fineman, a New York dentist who lost his wife and three young daughters in one of the Sept. 11 plane crashes, Adam Sandler sports a mass of bedraggled locks and walks with his head hung low, the sounds of the city drowned out by the Who or Bruce Springsteen blaring from his ever-present iPod. Having given up his practice and severed virtually all ties to family and friends, he scarcely leaves his apartment anymore, save for zipping around the eerily depopulated streets of lower Manhattan on his motorized scooter in the midnight hours — a ghost of a man haunting an urban graveyard. Five years on, Charlie Fineman is still in a state of shock and awe, which we know not just because his grooming and social skills have gone to pot, but because he can't seem to stop renovating and re-renovating his kitchen — part of an unfulfilled promise to his late wife — and because he spends copious hours in front of a videogame called Shadow of the Colossus, in which he can repeatedly lay waste to the evil forces he was powerless to defeat in life.
Like Spike Lee's 25th Hour, writer-director Mike Binder's Reign Over Me is less expressly about 9/11 than about how the city and its residents have tried (and in some cases failed) to reassemble lives in the aftermath — and if Binder has a considerably heavier hand when it comes to metaphor, his movie nevertheless remains buoyant because the feelings in it are immutable and because Sandler, I think, has never before held the screen with greater intensity. A role like this is one that a lot of comic actors look for when they want to show that they can be serious with a capital “S,” and which most of them botch by overacting in the big, extroverted way of their comedy roles: They pantomime their suffering and angst as though reaching for big, slapstick payoffs. (Think of Robin Williams' widower shrink in Good Will Hunting or, for that matter, virtually any of Williams' allegedly straight roles.) But Sandler, who has always gravitated toward anger and self-loathing even in his frat-boy blockbusters (and in dramadies like Spanglish, where he was one of the only things worth watching), here internalizes everything until his performance takes on a muted, idiot-savant quality reminiscent of Peter Sellers in Being There or Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. He's like a passive participant in his own existence, dwelling in the shadows of a faintly remembered past and exploding in frightening arpeggios of rage whenever reality rudely taps him on the shoulder. It's what Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to get him to do in Punch-Drunk Love before that movie's delusions of aesthetic grandeur got in the way.
Charlie Fineman is the sort of troubled but goodhearted character Hollywood movies yearn to heal or redeem or otherwise transform, and Reign Over Me offers up its potential savior in the form of Charlie's former dental school roommate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), who bumps into Charlie by accident one night and slowly starts to reconnect with his traumatized friend, who in turn lets Alan into his world, provided, of course, he makes no mention of Charlie's loss. The two men bond because Alan, in his own way, feels unmoored in life, despite the loving wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and two picture-perfect daughters waiting for him at home. On some level, he envies Charlie's freedom and regressed adolescence, no matter the steep price he's had to pay for them. And when Alan finally does acknowledge the elephant in Charlie's psychological living room, it's not because he's devised a magic solution to make the pain go away, but merely out of compassion for a wayward fellow traveler.
Reign Over Me is the ninth feature film directed by Binder, who usually writes and acts in his movies, too (here he plays Sandler's business manager, Sugarman), and whose hit-or-miss resume includes everything from a classically executed British farce (The Search for John Gissing) to a direct-to-video Ben Affleck vehicle (Man About Town). Binder's name isn't very well known in film circles, but like Sandler himself, he's an unmistakably original voice, even if his films too often feel like they were scripted in one unfiltered marathon session. Like his 2005 picture The Upside of Anger, which surrounded its thoughtful depiction of mid-life crisis and romance with an inexplicable murder mystery and oodles of prurient sexuality, Reign Over Me takes its own series of superfluous detours, including one recurring bit about Cheadle's efforts to fend off a nympho patient (Saffron Burrows) that feels like a discarded subplot from Binder's canceled HBO sitcom, The Mind of the Married Man. And when Binder ill-advisedly tries to connect the movie's disparate dots, it's a bit like an impatient child forcing together disjointed jigsaw puzzle pieces.
The upside of Binder, though, is that he rarely goes where you're expecting, which in the case of Reign Over Me means a straight-faced third act that is surprisingly honest and unsentimental about survivor guilt, mental illness, and the inability of time (or therapy or Hollywood movies) to heal certain wounds. This, I suspect, will provide little consolation to those in the front office at Columbia Pictures (where Sandler has made most of his movies) who have grown fat on the profits of Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds, and 50 First Dates, or to the hormonal teenagers scouring the marquee for a good make-out movie. But it should finally lay to rest the question of whether or not Adam Sandler is to be taken seriously. I mean, Seriously.