The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Reign Over Me

Written by Kevin Pearson.

Photo from the article To some, the fact Reign Over Me is getting little critical attention is somewhat surprising, given its subject matter. Before United 93 (2006) was even made that film was the topic of much discussion about the ethics of filmmaking. The filmmakers were forced to treat the subject as delicately as possible: advance copies were screened for families and press to promote good word and hope that approval was given. When World Trade Center (2006) was announced, it became a hot topic because Oliver Stone was attached and the fear was that he would (overtly) politicize the event. He did not. In today’s climate filmmakers are more aware than ever about the delicacy of dramatizing a major tragedy.

The truth is that the American public bemoaned those films not because they were made 'too soon', but because they were the work of ‘serious’ filmmakers who might potentially start asking serious questions that the public did not want to hear. Hollywood has always made entertainment out of tragedy; the subject of Pearl Harbor was immediate propaganda for the storylines of many war movies during the 1940s. Hollywood officially honored the tragic event by giving From Here to Eternity the Best Picture honors at the Academy Awards in 1953. Reign Over Me is the equivalent for 9/11: the first film that Hollywood would have loved and accepted back in the 1950s.

The entertainment of Reign Over Me comes from the story. Hollywood loves to have films with many characters and levels of drama, but this proliferation usually means that only the central storyline and main characters will be thoughtful. This is certainly true for this film in the case of the friendship of Sandler and Cheadle. The story goes to significant lengths to detail the highs and lows of their friendship. At first Cheadle is only helping Sandler deal with the trauma of his loss, but, as the story progresses, it matures to an equal give-and-take for both of them. Cheadle finds himself unexpectedly relying on Sandler to balance the stress of his workplace and his home life. Their story comes off as genuine. It has patience to allow the audience to grow along with the development of their relationship, and feel the sting of their later setbacks.

The rest of the film is broad comedy-drama. It includes, for comic relief, characters like an exuberant secretary (she works for Cheadle, whose character is a dentist), but mainly forces characters and stories into the confines of unlikely and untenable humor. As the film progresses, other stories gain their own levels of interest and some dabble into deeper feelings; however, because the film wants to be pure entertainment throughout, it tries too hard to make bed-mates of scenarios that would be typical in any drama, but unlikely to work in the context of a comedy.

Some scenarios do work though. Jada Pinkett-Smith, as Cheadle’s wife, has a double-tier duty in acting as voice of concern for how much Cheadle is allowing Sandler to take over his life, and also as the source of the domestic boredom he wants to escape. The film has little interest in delving deeply into the couple's problems, but shows comedic scenes of the shared activities she assumes he will enjoy; he doesn’t, but takes his pain in comic jest. The insanity of his house life also becomes a running joke in other situations, proving again that marital turmoil can go either way, and be grounds for drama or comedy.

Other plotlines are not so lucky. One subplot involves a young woman making advances on Cheadle while getting a dental examination. Cheadle, confused by this sudden aggression in her, kicks her out and asks his secretary to make sure she never comes back. Instead of simply calling her later to say that she is not welcome again, he yells down the hallway to tell her never come back. The scene is directed to be funny, but the effect for the woman is pure humiliation. When Sandler finds out how good-looking this woman was, the jokes continue on as he shows astonishment that such a woman would be interested in Cheadle in the first place.

But by then the situation is complicated. The simple character who made advances on Cheadle is really a mental patient who was acting out an obsession. Her recourse is that she threatens to sue Cheadle’s dental practice. The tone has therefore changed. The plotline's tone is now serious as the scandal haunts Cheadle personally and professionally. Then the story takes a sentimental turn when she apologizes for her behavior and becomes an unlikely supporter of Sandler through therapy and the working through of his demons; the interest on her part almost seems romantic. So a subplot that began as an unlikely comic situation evolves into a serious issue, and finally ends as a prospect for Sandler’s character romantically.

The turn-around of this character deserves its own film - in fact, that is the only way it could feel plausible. Not only does the film have assorted interests, but also numerous tonal shifts. A character that begins as a joke evolves to causing a serious dilemma and then becomes a crucial link to the evolution of the main character’s progress. The film ends with Sandler’s future looking better, but still in major question. His chance to fall in love again and get over his wife seems to lie in this woman who has taken a strange interest in him. A few years ago, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) used the same trick: a young hopeless boxer started as a banal character with little use but by the end became the bearer of the big message of the film. It resulted in dramatic bankruptcy.

This film shows little development for Mike Binder’s film career. When he made The Upside of Anger, he had some success, but the story was marred by the uncomfortable relationship of humor and drama. The attempt to humanize the characters through jokes had more kinship with melodrama than anything else. Scenes would hit all extremes and stand out instead of keeping the story flowing well. The improvement in Reign Over Me is that the friendship is more focused and has better development. His earlier problems remain in that he still has a tendency to try to please too much, but the friendship he crafts between Sandler and Cheadle is memorable.

Mike Binder directing.
Mike Binder directing.
The world of entertainment seems to have changed very little. Works of all kinds are made with the belief that it is best to attempt to appease every feeling and interest in the audience. Reign Over Me allows you to leave the theater feeling good, but it jumps ropes and avoids obstacles to do so. Nothing about the film is challenging; on the day I saw this movie that felt a good thing, and I allowed the film to carry me. Critical duty, however, requires one not to make too much out of this novelty, and try to accurately weigh the film in both its strengths and flaws.

This Alternate Take was published on May 03, 2007.

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