Regardless of what Reign Over Me actually is as a movie, it has a built-in tragic flaw. Even if it was the most incredibly moving drama (it’s not) that featured the most incredible performances (it doesn’t) and the most stunning cinematography (whatever) and an incredible soundtrack (decent, but trying too hard), the simplest one-line description of the movie is and would always be this:
Adam Sandler’s 9/11 movie.
And there is absolutely no way to read that sentence without thinking that Reign Over Me is ridiculous and unnecessary. It’s not exactly ridiculous. It’s definitely unnecessary. Most importantly, though, it could have been a lot worse. SURPRISE!
Reign Over Me is about a Manhattan dentist played by Don Cheadle who lives with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and children (Unknowns) in a beautiful apartment and who is constantly getting offers for blowjobs from his patients. Sure! One day on his way home he sees his old college roommate (Adam Sandler) ride by on a motorized scooter, so he stops his car in the middle of the street and chases after him because that’s a totally reasonable thing to do in New York that people do all the time. But Adam Sandler doesn’t hear him because he has big headphones on (because he is sad). The next night, Don Cheadle is doing a boring puzzle with his wife because marriage takes a lot of work, and jumps at the chance to drive his daughter to her friend’s house for a sleepover, and while he is dropping her off he sees Adam Sandler again (lucky!) and this time he stops him but Adam Sandler doesn’t recognize him. Don Cheadle still manages to convince him to go get a cup of coffee, and ends up going over to his apartment? Totally normal progression of running into an old friend you haven’t seen who appears to have amnesia and possibly Aspberger’s (which you can get from sadness now). The two of them quickly become friends, but it is a very volatile friendship! Adam Sandler will have angry outbursts and throw root beer in Don Cheadle’s face! But he also shows Don Cheadle the best time he’s had in awhile. Eventually, though, Don Cheadle decides that he wants to get Adam Sandler help, because Adam Sandler has PTSD from having lost his wife and his three daughters in 9/11. At first Adam Sandler is angry! But then he agrees that he needs help! But then he doesn’t respond very well to therapy! One night he gets drunk and finds a gun in his apartment, but he doesn’t have any bullets, but instead of going to the bullet store he goes out in the street and points the gun at a cop, hoping the cop will shoot him. Instead, he is arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation. The DA determines that he should be hospitalized for a year, and his in-laws agree, because they are sad that he won’t talk to them anymore. There is a high powered court case, the way there always is when the state wants to hospitalize someone for mental illness (?) but the judge decides that it is up to Adam Sandler’s in-laws to decide whether or not he should be locked up or allowed to figure things out “on his own time”. Eventually, they decide to let him go because he kisses them on the cheek, moves out of his apartment without telling them where he’s going, and also Don Cheadle tells them to. Family! Meanwhile, Don Cheadle has become a better husband. Also the woman who tried to give him a blowjob and then threatened a lawsuit and is also his therapist friend’s sister (I think?) starts a love connection with Adam Sandler. It’s a 9/11 miracle!
Ugh. You know, if this had just been an overwrought drama about a depressed widower, even if it still starred Adam Sandler, we probably wouldn’t even be here right now. But someone had to bring 9/11 into it. Without minimizing the great human tragedy of September 11th, 2001, there is a secondary tragedy: the insufferable attempts of popular culture to make sense of and pay some kind of tribute to what happened. The fact of the matter is that genuine tragedy is not explainable, it’s not relatable, and it makes for terrible cathartic feel-good narratives. So when Adam Sandler’s fictional mother-in-law tells Don Cheadle about what happened to her fictional daughter and grandaughters on that very real day and says “I had all these plans for retirement. Then those monsters flew across the world and rearranged my dance card,” I want to throw myself out of a very tall building (sorry).
There’s also the problem of Adam Sandler’s history of viewer-conditioning that makes it impossible to hear him yell at someone without picturing a golf ball being cajoled into going into its home.
I’ve never liked him in a dramatic movie, which isn’t really his fault. He’s not technically “bad” at it, I just don’t really care. Trying to make a “serious” connection with a famous “comedic” actor is really difficult if not impossible. It’s not so much about me wanting to keep them in a pre-determined box as it is their successes as actors in creating and perpetuating that box in the first place. Just like television actors from highly successful series often have a difficult time convincing audiences that they can be any character other than the one they made famous over years of syndicated episodes, so too does the comedian have the impossible task of proving to people that he’s not joking. The boy who had a tight five about wolves, so to speak.
That being said, his character is just kind of weird. Admittedly, I don’t know that much about the real life symptoms or effects of PTSD. Does it really make people throw the word “faggot” around for no reason and actually enjoy Mel Brooks movies and want to eat Chinese food at the first hint of bad news?
Sure, Don Cheadle. “I’ve got to bring you down here, it’s crazy.” It’s crazy? It’s a Mel Brooks marathon. Tell your wife that it’s a Mel Brooks marathon and let her decide whether or not she needs you to bring her down there. I’m pretty sure she’ll be the judge of that. By the end of the movie you do start to wonder where a busy Manhattan dentist with a wife and children manages to get all of his free time. The idea in this movie, made popular by just about every movie in which “men” are the featured characters, including The Hangover, just as an example, is that women are always trying to keep them from having fun. Jada Pinkett Smith won’t let him have any fun! He’s a man! Men need to have fun! Well men also need to raise their fucking children. Go home, Don Cheadle!
The movie’s other main problem is its vacillation between broad brush strokes, and overly specific details. Adam Sandler can afford to hang out all day, riding around on his motor-scooter and not being a dentist anymore because he…well, he just has a lot of money now. “Between the government settlment and the insurance money.” That doesn’t seem right, but OK! I’m not a professor of 9/11 Pay Outs. Adam Sandler is constantly renovating his kitchen because that was the last thing he and his wife talked about before she died and it’s a symbol of his inability to move on with his life, which is a perfectly fine if somewhat heavy handed way for the movie to depict his inner turmoil, but then he explains that the renovation was his wife and daughters’ idea. Really? Later, his mother-in-law says of the finally finished kitchen “the girls would have loved this.” REALLY? They are children! They don’t give a fuck about kitchen renovations! And maybe I’m just overly-sensitive to this being the man-child with an inability to accept the responsibilities of adulthood, but somehow I feel like a crippled widower who spends all day sitting in his darkened apartment eating take out food and playing X-Box would not have this much toilet paper.
That is a reasonable, functional adult’s amount of toilet paper!
In the end, this movie is basically a variation on the ever-popular “retard teaches a jaded cynic how to enjoy the wonders of life again” genre, which we have already determined to be one of the very worst genres. The fact that Adam Sandler is just psychologically retarded is of little difference. I’m not saying that people don’t sometimes meet other people who reframe their priorities and help them to redefine themselves and their relationship to the world around them. I’m just saying that they almost never do that, especially when they’re SUFFERING FROM PTSD and living in a PERSONAL HELL OF ENDLESS EMOTIONAL ANGUISH.
Next week: Margot at the Wedding. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.