3 stars (out of four)
Adam Sandler isn't the kind of actor you'd normally expect to see in a big, emotion-flexing role, playing someone who's hot-headed, angst-ridden, grief-stricken or all three. "Punch-Drunk Love" to the contrary, Sandler has mostly seemed an unabashed comedian, someone who likes singing falsetto and playing the fool.
Yet angst, rage and grief are what he does in "Reign Over Me," a comedy-drama about friendship and crack-ups from writer-director Mike Binder. It's better than you'd expect but not as good as you'd like it to be. Sandler, wearing a 10 o'clock shadow and a scruffy corona of curls that makes him a dead ringer for the young "Highway 61 Revisited"-era Bob Dylan, plays Charlie Fineman, a former dentist who lost his family in the 9/11 crashes and has been in a protracted breakdown ever since.
Don Cheadle, meanwhile, astutely plays Charlie's college roommate and one-time best friend Alan Johnson, a successful dentist whose seemingly charmed life is thrown into strong relief when he spots Charlie on the street and re-enters his life.
Alan's world already has started to unravel a bit before he re-encounters Charlie. But he's a long way from the meltdown his old roomie has undergone; Charlie, with the aspect of a traumatized ex-prisoner, at first doesn't even recognize him. He also avoids almost everyone else he knows, including his business manager Bryan Sugarman (played by director Binder), and his still-grieving in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon).
Charlie has retreated into the freer, more irresponsible lifestyle of his high school or college years; he collects old vinyl albums (his favorites are The Who's "Quadrophenia" and Bruce Springsteen's "The River"), plays drums at a rock club and zips around town on his Go-Ped motorized scooter. All this attracts Alan, whose life is starting to get difficult. Alan argues with wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a patient (Saffron Burrows) makes a pass at him in his office, only to later accuse him of molestation. Alan also keeps deliberately bumping into a neighboring psychiatrist (Liv Tyler), trying to get free advice, and soon she's drawn into Charlie's problems too.
"Reign Over Me," which takes its title from "Quadrophenia's" "Love, Reign O'er Me," has a terrific cast who seem to revel in their roles--including, toward the end, Donald Sutherland as a crusty, sardonic old judge. But there are weird lapses in the movie. How could these two old college friends, both dentists living in New York City, have lost track of each other for more than 10 years? Binder doesn't really explain this. It's one of a number of devices or character traits--like Alan's odd contempt for white rock 'n' roll--that the actors make us take on faith.
Like Binder's last movie, "The Upside of Anger"--which I didn't like as much--"Reign" is a comic movie trying too hard for deep-dish drama. But "Reign" works better much better than "Upside" because of the cast and because Sandler and Cheadle together keep it lighter. It's an easy film to watch, but less easy to be moved by--even when the Who's "Reign O'er Me" rings out or when we glide through New York by Go-Ped.
'Reign Over Me'
Directed and written by Mike Binder; photographed by Russ Alsobrook; edited by Steve Edwards, Jeremy Roush; music by Rolfe Kent; production design by Pipo Wintter; produced by Michael Rotenberg and Jack Binder. A Columbia Pictures release, opens Friday. Running time: 2:08. MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual references).
Charlie - Adam Sandler
Alan - Don Cheadle
Janeane - Jada Pinkett Smith
Angela - Liv Tyler
Donna - Saffron Burrows