Another funny poignant, funny drama by writer/director Mike Binder
Mike Binder isn't exactly a household name, yet he has acquired quite a following among cinephiles. As an actor, he's had non-stand-out parts in big movies like Minority Report and lead roles in the too short-lived HBO series The Mind of the Married Man. But it is as a writer and director where it turns out that Binder shines.
In 2005, he garnered the notice of the film community with The Upside of Anger, a critically acclaimed indie about a Michigan woman who melts down after her husband leaves her for another woman. His lyrical ability walk the delicate line between drama and comedy attracted Joan Allen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, Alicia Witt and even Kevin Costner (not a man known for his penchant for low budget movies) to the script.
Binder built on that cache with Reign Over Me, his new drama about a man who lost his family in 9/11. Adam Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a former dentist who withdrew from the world after his wife and three daughters were killed on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. One day, his old college roommate Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) sees him riding around Manhattan on his scooter and the two reconnect.
Although by all indications Johnson is in an ideal situation - good job, beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and family - he isn't quite happy. He can't quite put his finger on it, but something isn't right. Through their re-burgeoning friendship, both men find a way back into life.
In less capable hands, Reign Over Me could have been gimmicky schlock that capitalized on the 9/11 tragedies and the draw of "serious Sandler" to get people into the seats and not pay off. But Binder is the real thing. He was inspired to write the story after being in New York during the September 11th attacks and seeing first-hand the devastation that pervaded the city. Years later he was back and thought to himself, "I wonder if there's people that are still walking the streets that that day has never ended for." And Binder did those people proud.
As shown in The Upside of Anger, he has an ability to tell personal stories in a very real way. From the moment Reign Over Me starts, Binder's camerawork captures the feel of New York from a human level. He said he always shot from the sidewalk up, "so you always felt like you were inside a canyon of buildings, and you really felt what it was like to be walking the streets." This is Charlie's New York, a lonely, quiet New York seen late at night from the vantage point of his scooter. And his New York looks so much like it would through your own eyes that you can nearly feel the crisp, almost-Spring air coming off the screen.
Binder's story also provides an unflinching portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder that may be the most accurate representation since Ordinary People over 25 years ago. Charlie's rages and odd behavior are totally understandable given the gravity of what happened to him, as are the reactions it provokes in those around him. But don’t think it's all rages and freak-outs.
Mike Binder is also the master of knowing just how to lighten up heavy moments, and you will find yourself laughing much more than you expected for a drama bout a 9/11 widower.
Much ado will of course be made of Adam Sandler going serious for this part, and he spoke at the press conference of the hard work he put into getting Charlie right. I happen to have liked serious Sandler in Spanglish and Punch-Drunk Love, and his turn in Reign Over Me is no exception. His natural inwardness and restraint (when not embodying one of his typical characters) seemed to blossom perfectly into this broken, withdrawn man that you can't help but feel bad for despite his outbursts of bad behavior.
Don Cheadle shines as the malaise-plagued Alan Johnson. He has such a natural likeability that he is the perfect everyman through whom to see Charlie's story. But he also textures his part well enough that you can understand why he is so drawn to being Charlie's friend. He completely conveys Alan's simple desire to have someone to hang out with is so powerful that it allows him to overcome Charlie's obvious issues and inappropriate behavior.
Binder gives no less care to the smaller parts in his films, and often likes to cast himself as flawed, jerky characters. In Reign Over Me, he plays Bryan Sugarman, Charlie's financial advisor who appears to be taking advantage of his insurance settlements to help him maintain his unhealthy lifestyle. Liv Tyler (Jersey Girl, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is lovely casting as the young, sensitive therapist who tries to help Charlie, and Jada Pinkett Smith is believable as his wife with whom things aren't quite right. And Saffron Burrows (The Matchmaker, Circle of Friends) and Donald Sutherland (Ordinary People, Panic) are absolutely excellent filling out supporting roles as one of Alan's problematic patients and an ornery judge. But I think my favorite small character is Alan's cranky secretary Melanie, played by Paula Newsome (Little Miss Sunshine, Guess Who).
I'm not going to say that Reign Over Me is for everyone. It is, at its heart, a personal drama made accessible by Binder's unusual touch. Oddly, it didn't stick with me for days and days after I left the theater, and I can't say why that is. But it was the first 9/11-related movie I've even wanted to see and it didn't let me down at all. If you think the trailer looks good, then go for it--you won't be let down.