Sounds positively cheery, doesn't it? An old college buddy tries to comfort a man who lost his wife and young daughters in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nothing but maudlin, right? You can almost predict the flag-waving ("those bastards!) tone and the bleak, depressing characterizations that have the look and feel of one of those "save the children" infomercials, can't you?
Except that it never happens in "Reign over Me." Director Mike Binder, who was in New York taping a Diane Sawyer show when the first plane hit the first tower and spent the day walking shell-shocked among the rest of the stunned New Yorkers, fought any temptation to tell a predictable story. Yes, it was a horrible event. Yes, it was the a political watershed. Yes, it affected lives. But Binder was more interested in telling the story of how it might have affected lives well beyond the event, rather than staying narratively close to that tragic day and creating what amounts to poster children for the disaster.
The result is a surprising film that, yes, is full of sad and "down" moments. But it doesn't feel exploitive, and it has some unexpectedly funny moments as well. Binder's decision to make this essentially a buddy picture with 9/11 set way in the background makes it an enjoyable character study. In a way, it's "Rain Man" with a different disorder and without the road trip.
Adam Sandler turns in a Dustin Hoffman-like performance as Charlie Fineman, whose wife and young daughters were on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. He's neurotic and withdrawn, apparently living off of the insurance money so that he has nothing anymore to do with the normal world of work and social relationships. He has post-traumatic stress disorder in a big way. Everywhere he turns, he's tormented by images of his family, from the way it used to be. That's why he'll have nothing to do with his in-laws, the only family he has now, and why he tries to tune all the memories out by tuning in to music from his childhood and teens. Suddenly obsessed with old vinyls, he listens to music constantly through big headphones and tools off through traffic on his motorized scooter. He moves often, and remodels his kitchen over and over again. In other words, he's got problems.
But his lucky day comes when his old dentistry college roommate happens to see him on the street and makes contact. As it turns out, Dr. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle, in a dynamite performance) is one of the few people that Charlie will allow to get close to him. And even that changes when the volatile young man hears things he doesn't want to listen to, or when he thinks he's being "set up."
Alan takes an interest in his friend, partly out of obligation, but partly because in some ways he's not all that different from Charlie. He's shut his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) out of his life and seems to be on the outs with the other dental partners. Though at first he plays video games and rides off on that scooter with Charlie to placate his friend, it becomes clear that these outings are as much for him as they are for his disturbed former roommate. He's disturbed too, though on a much more benign level.
Thrown into the mix are Angela, a therapist friend of Alan's (Liv Tyler) who tries to treat Charlie, and Donna (Saffron Burrows), a patient who tries to "treat" Dr. Johnson to oral sex--a sideplot that doesn't just function as comic relief, and doesn't detract from the main storyline. We can't help but watch with fascination as the men's relationship with each other grows, and as Charlie begins to allow others into his world--at least on the periphery.
"Reign over Me" isn't so unique that we haven't seen any of it before. We have. There are plenty of times when we sense a certain déjà vu when Charlie meets with his therapist, or when the two men are bonding together. There's even a sense of having been there and done that when the relatives try to connect with Charlie. And yet, the star performances and a script that tries to minimize the melodrama and emotional manipulation makes for a film that ends up being better than average.
The 1080p picture looks great in Blu-ray, presented in 2.40:1 widescreen. In keeping with the tone of the film, the palette is mostly subdued, but the black levels are strong and there's a fine amount of detail. No complaints here.
Same with the audio, which is an English PCM (uncompressed) 5.1 with a natural-sounding rich tone and perfect balance between treble/bass and among the speakers. Alternative soundtrack options are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.
There aren't a whole lot of extras, but what's here is decent. The best is a making-of feature that shows the director and stars on-camera talking about the film and integrates clips. On the one hand, it's fairly standard; on the other, there's more substance here than we normally get in a making-of feature.
On the surface, an "extended jam session with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle" might seem a throwaway feature, but as you watch the men play guitar together, Cheadle on bass and Sandler handling the lead, you find yourself being entertained. I mean, these are actors who are putting together a pretty listenable session!
Rounding out the extras is a photo gallery.
I expected a predictable bummer of a film that covered all the familiar bases related to 9/11. What I got was an absorbing character study of two friends who are just trying to come to terms with themselves and the world around them. "Reign over Me" features strong writing and performances. It could have been dripping with emotion, but it's not; it could have been laced with patriotic vitriole, but it's not. It's a quiet tale that has everything--and nothing--to do with September 11th.