March 29, 2007

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Reign Over Me (R)
Don Cheadle is so good he lends some good to Adam Sandler in the early-mid-life crisis movie Reign Over Me.

Don Cheadle is very high on my “give this man an Oscar already” list. He had the misfortune of being nominated for his excellent role in Hotel Rwanda the same year that Jamie Foxx was up for Ray. Were these men not so aligned, Cheadle would be polishing his statue with the dollar bills he made in pure entertainment films like Ocean’s 11 and 12 and now 13.

I suppose he can take some solace in knowing that just his presence can elevate the quality of a film. How do I know? Reign Over Me is a Mike Binder film and I still haven’t forgiven Mike Binder for the odious Mind of a Married Man series on HBO. And yet, watch me say positive things about it.

Alan Johnson (Cheadle) loves his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), loves his children, has a great apartment and a lucrative career blah blah blah but he also has a feeling of solitude. Somehow in agreeing to take camera classes with his wife and in not having any friends to play with outside the home, Alan has let his own personality slip away.

It’s the kind of angsty thing you can worry about when your life is basically great and you sort of sheepishly realize it and your biggest problem is that crazy girls who find you attractive hit on you when they come in for dental appointments. Which is what happens to Alan when crazy-lady Donna (Saffron Burrows) comes to see him and offers to bow-chicka-wow-wow on him right there in the dentist office. (That whole subplot really defines, by the way, my problems with Mike Binder. There is always some ridiculously attractive woman behaving in embarrassing ways around his men.) Instead of being able to blush and laugh it off, Alan is stressed out by the proposition, which causes him problem with his partners.

It’s in this state of glumness and annoyance that Alan runs into Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler). Charlie was his dental school roommate and the two hadn’t been close since then but Alan did recognize the name of Fineman’s wife and three daughters on the list of people on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

Charlie, as you might imagine, has real problems.

One of his problems is that he doesn’t recognize Alan or remember their time together in dental school. Actually, Charlie doesn’t seem to remember much of anything. No longer a dentist, he kills time traveling the streets of New York City on a motorized scooter, buying record albums (he likes the smell of the vinyl), drumming for a punk band, redecorating the kitchen over and over and playing video games. He doesn’t talk about his family and won’t talk to his wife’s parents, who have seemingly pestered him to distraction with offers of help.

Distraction is actually a good way to describe how Charlie lives — his life of puttering and playing is a distraction from all the other parts of his life. Charlie’s facial expressions are even distracted, as though he’s thinking not about what’s going on around him nor about the big horrible thing but about some third thing — something, probably, that is as close to nothing as he can manage. Alan, wearyingly present in his own life, finds a kind of freedom and relaxation in Charlie’s life and Charlie seems content with Alan’s presence and the way he doesn’t ask Charlie to talk about the past.

Don Cheadle is so good at what he does that the disparity between Alan’s life and Charlie’s life isn’t as galling as it could be. Though this movie does use a recent national disaster as a plot device, it doesn’t do it in such a way as to make you embarrassed for the movie. “Oh, brother” was what I thought when I first heard the plot of this movie but it doesn’t work out in an “oh, brother” way.

Don Cheadle is so good at what he does he helps Adam Sandler be good too. Sandler and Cheadle have strong male friendship chemistry here. As he does with everybody else in his life, Alan has to do a certain amount of dancing around a subject and ignoring the obvious with Charlie. And yet, somehow, the hugeness of what they don’t talk about doesn’t get in the way of these two lonely guys’ forming a surprisingly deep bond over the seemingly trivial things they do talk about.

And from this solidly portrayed, believable relationship come good supporting characters and relationships, such as Alan’s with his wife and Alan’s therapy non-sessions with Angela (Liv Tyler), a therapist who works down the hall from him. These characters are all able to interact with each other in recognizably human ways — sometimes funny (the movie, subject aside, has a lot of dry humor), sometimes sad but generally believable. Perhaps because I went in thinking “oh, brother” (and a serious Sandler role, a Sept. 11 connection and a Mike Binder behind both the script and the directing are plenty of things worthy of “oh, brother”) I left thinking “huh, that was nice.” B-

Rated R for language and some sexual references. Written and directed for Mike freakin’ Binder, Reign Over Me is two hours and eight minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.