You seemed so solitary, so alone. That seems very familiar to me.
—Donna (Saffron Burrows)
“He’s completely lost.” Alan (Don Cheadle) is characterizing the thuddingly named Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), whom he’s discovered shuffling on a New York sidewalk. Alan’s heart has gone out to his onetime college roommate, who now wears his hair unkempt and beard scruffy, as he spends endless hours redoing his kitchen, repeatedly. Alan first spots him with paint cans in hand, head encased in headphones that keep him inside an ‘80s rock soundtrack. Even as Alan calls out to him, Charlie remains oblivious.
At the start of Reign Over Me, Alan hasn’t seen his friend in years, though he did hear about him. Once an upscale New York dentist like himself, Charlie fell off when he lost his wife and daughters in a plane on 9/11. Though, as Alan puts it, he “tried calling him,” he never made contact. Now he worries out loud to his wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), that Charlie’s “completely lost.” She’s initially sad to hear this, but, as her husband makes Charlie a “project,” she starts to question the relationship.
Janeane here provides the film’s first effort to characterize unfathomable women (more accurately, she’s the second, as Charlie’s dead-female-grouping is a kind of first, in their very transcendent perfection). As Janeane listens to Alan’s description of his encounter, she’s briefly sympathetic (recalling Charlie as “the one from dental school whose family was on the plane”), then moves on to another topic, their next dinner date. Alan turns from her and silently mouths his reaction to the appointment he dreads: “Fuck.”
Thus Reign Over Me lays out crucial affinities between Alan and Charlie, both victims, both unable to articulate their needs, and both acting out in ways that might be termed “childish.” Their differences are also telling. Charlie’s trauma seems unimaginable (even as the film imagines it heavy-handedly, by showing what’s lost: soft-focus happy-times images of the family intact). But Alan’s dislocation and depression appear eminently fixable: if only he can have a more or less honest conversation with his wife and stand up to his cranky professional partners, he’ll find himself. Alan appears to know he needs something, repeatedly seeking “free advice” from Angela (Liv Tyler), a therapist who works in his office building (she rightly guesses that the “friend” whose frustrations he describes is him). By contrast, Charlie sublimates his suffering in pretty regular distractions: in addition to remodeling the apartment, he plays drums in a punk band, reads Captain America, and plays Shadow of the Colossus, a videogame featuring ominous towers.
Such conspicuous symbolism indicates the persistent lack of subtlety in Mike Binder’s film. Even as it probes the difficulties of coping with loss and showcases Cheadle’s remarkable capacity for compelling understatement, it also grants Sandler too much time to perform his seriosity in close-up. With Alan as guide, the movie journeys into “Charlie World,” where the boys eat Chinese takeout, drink beer, and lose track of time, as when they go to a Mel Brooks marathon (this scene, lifted from Sullivan’s Travels, reminds you that comedy is indeed therapeutic). The boys are working through their “issues,” each encouraging the other to resist oppressive adult expectations even as they lapse into their own adolescent-seeming routine.
This leads again to Janeane’s consternation (even the adorably unpushy therapist Angela suggests actual “help,” rather than perpetual diversion, might be in order). Holding down a household with two daughters and on point during a crisis involving Alan’s parents, Janeane is increasingly impatient with her husband’s nightly checking out. He suggests he’s needed (“It’s sad over there baby, it’s a sea of sadness”), but she sees something else, that he desires Charlie’s “freedom” (afforded, you recall, by a dead family). At this point Alan resists: “You’re not in my head!” he mutters as he leaves again. But of course, she is.
The all-knowing girl is only partly a threat for these boys, however. They also desire the conventional nurturing and sensuality associated with feminine movie characters, which complicates the retreat into Charlie World. And so the movie suggests as well the problems inherent in that world, as embodied by its namesake: he’s rude (which can be fun), but he’s also twitchy and aggressive (less fun), and sometimes pathetic and frightening (decidedly not fun). Like many boys, he sees Alan’s occasional returns to adulthood as weak and “feminine.” (During one spew of invective, he calls him a “faggot” again and again; when Alan discovers that Captain America has a black partner, he worries that his “green plunging neck is kinda faggoty,” not noting the problem so many critics have with him, that his name is “Bucky.”) At last Alan makes a pitch to Charlie to rejoin his world, at least for a visit. This involves Angela, for whom Charlie slunks down in his chair and turns up his iPod, telling her that he wants to talk about her “tits.” She sighs. Yes, he’s traumatized.
Repeatedly, the film takes up and doesn’t quite question Charlie’s immature perspective on girls: even as it’s a sign of his damage, it’s also a source of comedy and, during one quite lovely moment, when he abruptly kisses his estranged mother-in-law (Melinda Dillon) on the cheek. When he remembers himself as the “oddball” in his former life, “Mr. Man” in a house full of ethereal blond females, it becomes clear that his recovery depends on his reintegration into a more-or-less mature, mixed-gender existence.
Alas, the first steps to this recovery comprise the film’s most disturbing embodiment of victimization and trauma—by a girl. One of Alan’s patients, Donna (Saffron Burrows), has suffered her own loss (her husband has cheated on her). But her response isn’t edifying, entertaining, or sympathetic. Instead, Donna is driven into hypersexual stalker-spasms. In a word, she offers Alan oral sex in his office, repeatedly, and when he turns her down, she threatens to sue him for harassment. Her aggressiveness scares Alan (“She’s like crazy with a side of crazy”), but it intrigues Charlie. Impressed that this extraordinary beauty (he compares her to ‘40s movie stars) would want to “blow” Alan, Charlie is initially unable to speak in her presence. Instead, he finds in her another vehicle for his renewed adolescence, by fixating on her breasts… at least until she becomes this fine man’s means to redemption.