Of all the movies that have touched on 9/11, Mike Binder’s “Reign Over Me” must be the most oblique. The television commercials, which reveal much of the plot, tell you more than you’ll learn by watching the first hour of this dour, overlong drama.
Adam Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a friendless basket case whose wife and daughters perished in a hijacked plane. Don Cheadle is his college roommate, Alan Johnson, a dentist who renews their relationship even though Charlie is so far gone he doesn’t recognize him.
They become so close that Alan’s easygoing wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) becomes both jealous and afraid of Charlie, who turns up at odd hours and suddenly starts trashing furniture and starting barroom brawls. He really has a thing for smashing lamps. The better to destroy anything that would illuminate his condition?
A soothing psychiatrist (Liv Tyler) decides that he’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while a traumatized nymphomaniac (Saffron Burrows) offers herself to Alan, then decides to throw herself at Charlie. Paula Newscome generates much-needed humor as a sarcastic receptionist, Melinda Dillon lends some weight to the role of Charlie’s obsessed mother-in-law, while Donald Sutherland is loose and funny as a surly judge who determines Charlie’s future.
Like writer-actor-director Binder’s previous movie, “The Upside of Anger,” the whole thing threatens to collapse in a deeply dubious finale. This one suggests that sex addiction is a cure for PTSD. Only Sutherland’s wry professionalism rises above the pandering of an embarrassing courtroom sequence.
Also like “Anger,” which generously gave Kevin Costner and Joan Allen much to do, “Reign Over Me” is not without its compensations. Cheadle is splendid and Sandler, recovering nicely from last summer’s debacle, “Click,” gives one of his most effective dramatic performances.
Looking like an especially haggard Bob Dylan, he plays Charlie as a free spirit whose occasional fits of anger are as shocking as they are ultimately understandable. He loses himself in video games, spends hours avoiding any discussion of the absence of his family, and pushes his only friend to the brink.
While most people would wash their hands of Charlie after a few ugly confrontations, Alan is committed to maintaining their friendship. What motivates him is not entirely clear, but it’s more than nostalgia for their college days. Alan proudly announces at one point that he is not an addictive personality, but it’s clear that he’s addicted to Charlie.
Binder’s movie is at its most seductive when Charlie and Alan are talking about the music they loved as roommates, especially Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and The Who’s “Quadrophenia.” (Naturally, they prefer vinyl to CD.) Whole sequences are built around songs from these albums, one of which provides the film with its title.
Binder’s passion for this music makes up for a lot of miscalculations, including the sense that his overall approach to what one character calls “serious stuff” is essentially shallow. Like Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” Binder turns a horrific moment in the nation’s history into the basis for an overstretched soap opera. But the effort isn’t entirely in vain.