As award season steamrolls onward, moviegoers are scrambling to play catch up with all the many different nominees they haven’t seen yet. This has never been easier than years prior, I think. Although it might be difficult to catch a certain film in limited release at your local theater, many films like Marriage Story or The Irishman can be seen from the comfort of your living room. One topic of conversation that has been brought up this year is in-regards to Adam Sandler. The veteran comedic actor is hot off his recently released film Uncut Gems which received critical acclaim from moviegoers and critics alike. Even if the film may not have been as successful at awards ceremonies as they might have hoped, it is definitely a performance that will be highly regarded for years to come. Many people are finding themselves wondering whether they might have misjudged Adam Sandler after all of these years, chastising him as a no-good hack of an actor whose resume includes very pictures like Grown Ups 2 and Jack and Jill. The answer is more complicated than that, obviously. When someone finds victory that doesn’t necessarily erase their defeats, but it does make you wonder the extent of Sandler’s potential.
I like Adam Sandler overall, I think. Growing up, I enjoyed Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, and I enjoyed Click and even Eight Crazy Nights, and even if I can’t say I have enjoyed a single live-action film from Sandler over the last decade, I do believe he is capable when he’s among the right company and talent. His usual party over at Happy Madison often enable him to personify a hammy, cornball allure that leaves a lot to be desired. Uncut Gems isn’t the first “serious Adam Sandler” performance and, in-fact, there is a few of them. One such film is the 2007 buddy drama film Reign Over Me.
Written and directed by Mike Binder, Reign Over Me sees a talented cast comprised of Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Saffron Burrows and Mike Binder himself. Although the film was not a success at the box office, grossing only 22 million from a 20 million-dollar production budget that doesn’t even consider the cost for marketing, it did receive generally favorable reception from critics and moviegoers.
The story follows a man named Alan Johnson, that’s Don Cheadle’s character, for those of you keeping score, a dentist who’s toothy smile shows a man who has it made, at least on the surface. Alan has a successful practice, he has a wife who loves him, and children who feel the same. However, the pressure of being a family man and his career are weighing heavily on him. Charlie Fineman, played by Adam Sandler, is on a different spectrum. After the September 11 attacks, Charlie Fineman lost everything, including his mental health. The death of his children and his wife broke him, with trauma and guilt costing him his career and the remainder of his relationships. As former college roommates, Alan reaches out to befriend Charlie who is receptive to his company but sporadic and unpredictable at the mere mention of the ones he lost. Even if they are certainly at different levels of severity, Reign Over Me is about two old friends who become reacquainted at a time when both of them are in need. As Alan does all he can to help Charlie, he comes face-to-face with his own problems.
One criticism I heard thrown around about this film is its inclusion of the September 11 attacks as a plot device. I concur with the criticism, however, I don’t agree with it for the reason it was given. I don’t criticize the use of the September 11 attacks as a plot device because it is something that happened and affected a lot of people. The film does nothing except suggest the severity of the situation and the many lives it changed. The reason I believe it should have been changed is because it feels like an unnecessary callback to an event in history. Tragedies happen a lot. Accidents happen. The inclusion of the September 11 attacks, for lack of a better word, feels “cutesy” or convenient, and that’s the last sentiment you want to have about a film with such a serious concept.
Reign Over Me sees Adam Sandler offer up one of the finest performances of his career – tackling the grief-stricken Charlie Fineman in a way that feels sentimental enough that it can draw tears to your eyes, but also ugly enough that he doesn’t become the embodiment of a tear-jerker. The character is imperfect, spouting homophobic slurs casually and lashing out in anger when he is met with something he doesn’t want to hear. It is in the moments he is most subdued that I am really able to appreciate the imposing presence of the character and how torn he is by what life has dealt him. Meanwhile, Don Cheadle is formidable as always. Had this film narrowed in its focus I do think I would be singing a different tune in conclusion.
You see, Reign Over Me is very rough around the edges, both tonally and from a narrative standpoint. When it works, I think Reign Over Me’s intentions are noble and, for the most part, successful. The incorporation of music (from which the film finds its namesake) is inspired and thematic, with Fineman using it to drown out the world around him, and the cinematography and New York at night make for a fitting visual setting overall. The scenes with Sandler and Cheadle’s character back in fourth standout. That is what I think would have made a great film, a back in fourth between both men, with them and, perhaps even, Charlie’s therapist (Liv Taylor) learning to cope with Charlie’s emotional anguish.
On the other hand, the frivolous subplots, such as Alan Johnson’s encounters with a patient trying to have sex with him and the court-room drama between Charlie and his in-laws feel like they are meant to extend the run-time of a film that I believe could have done more with less. It is in these scenes that Reign Over Me becomes what you never want a serious drama to become – it feels like it is trying too hard.
Reign Over Me is a decent film, propelled mostly by the performance of Adam Sandler, which I think, in itself, might make it worth a recommendation if you haven’t seen it. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel of dramatic comedy and, in-fact, feels like it is plagued by a lot of the same detriments as many other dramatic comedies. The film valiantly attempts grace but often falls because of its own imbalanced equilibrium.