Long live rock!!! (Cue accompanying fist pump with Bic lighter aloft) Be it dead or alive....
It's actually another song by the Who that inspires the title of writer-director Mike Binder's "Reign Over Me," but it seems appropriate to begin with a guttural, lung-clearing wail of some kind. From the opening, surreal scooter-eye view of Manhattan streetscapes accompanied by Graham Nash's "Simple Man" to its rousing closing credits, "Reign" is an ardent man-love ode to rock in both its soft and hard forms.
Don Cheadle stars as Alan Johnson, a successful New York dentist, jolted out of a melancholia of indeterminate causes when he unexpectedly encounters Adam Sandler's Charlie Fineman, his college roommate with whom he'd lost contact. That Charlie does not recognize him and appears to have suffered some type of breakdown only energizes Alan's desire to rekindle their friendship.
The oddly matched pair begins to hang out, with Alan drawn into Charlie's strangely cloistered world of vintage rock. He's got a music room where he plays along to vinyl records, and he somewhat incongruously drums in a local punk band. The music is a haven from any reminders of a life he lost.
In hair that looks like it was borrowed from late-model Bob Dylan, Charlie is one sad and scary cat. The tragedy that triggered Charlie's withdrawal from life in the first place hovers in the background like a dark cloud threatening a downpour.
One minute he's feverishly scaling the video game heights of Shadow of the Colossus, the next he's retreating into the safety of his iPod. It's a one-man frat-boy world devoid of responsibility that's marvelously attractive to the reserved Alan.
A scattershot dramatist at best in terms of plot, Binder rigs his scenarios like rickety scaffolding, and you wonder how they remain standing. Like his "The Upside of Anger," with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner as well-matched suburban lushes, "Reign Over Me" depends on the interaction of its complexly drawn characters to remain compelling even when its plot veers into questionable territory.
Along with two excellent lead performances, the film has a fine supporting cast, including Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Donald Sutherland and Binder himself. Binder's people are not anyone you'd ask over for dinner, but it's fascinating to watch them argue, negotiate and cajole one another in exasperatingly human ways. The two men at the center of "Reign" are both treading water, and though their situations and reunion feel awfully contrived, there's an authenticity to the way Alan gravitates to Charlie and then tries to help him.
We've seen Sandler do serious before — notably in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" — so it should be no surprise that he pulls it off here. There's always an underlying anger to Sandler's most interesting performances, that sense that he's going to pop at any moment. Charlie allows him to be all the things that have made him a lively performer — outrageous, vulnerable, goofy and violent, almost simultaneously.
It helps that Sandler has the intensely reactive Cheadle to play off, especially when he delivers a key monologue that easily could have gone awry. Generosity is the sign of a great actor, and Cheadle shares the screen in an illuminating way. Alan is the ostensible protagonist, but Cheadle is confident enough to essentially play straight man to Sandler's inherently showier role.
It's crucial to the film's balance that Alan be well-grounded. The discontent he is experiencing at the beginning of the film is not unlike that felt by Chris Rock's character in "I Think I Love My Wife." Everything in his life seems perfect save this unexplained restlessness, and though the spouse character here — an underutilized Jada Pinkett Smith — is no better developed than in the other film, Cheadle makes Alan's discoveries far more interesting.
Binder uses rock — memorably the Pretenders, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen — in a refreshing way to reflect the intricacies of the relationships. What pours out of Charlie's iPod might as well be coming from his broken heart, but Binder's choices keep things surprisingly spirited. Movies about male friendship are often trivialized with the "buddy" tag, but this one resonates beyond that.
"Reign Over Me." MPAA rating: R for language and sexual references. Run time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. In general release.