I took a class in graduate school devoted to melodrama in film. I'm not sure what that says about higher education or my own education, but it enabled me to label Reign Over Me concisely as male melodrama, a type of dramatic movie we don't see very often since many people equate "melodrama" with "women's film." Many people also wrongly equate melodrama with hackneyed filmmaking that manipulates an audience to wring tears out of them (thus the term "tearjerker"). The stories are often overwrought and unbelievable, but the point is the effect of the film as a whole. For the most part, Reign Over Me succeeds on a melodramatic level, offering an emotional ride without excess artificiality.
Reign Over Me is about two men approaching middle age with varying degrees of problems, who discover the joys of friendship (platonic) with one another. Alan (Don Cheadle) is a successful dentist whose troubles all seem to stem from females: his wife wants too much of his time in pursuit of dull hobbies, his female clients practically stalk him, and the woman he turns to for help and free therapy rebuffs him. He accidentally runs into his old college roommate, Charlie (Adam Sandler), who's changed a lot in the past half-decade. Charlie lost his wife and daughters on Sept. 11, and his persistence in locking away any memories of his life with them has made him eccentric at best and psychotic at worst. Still, he's able to help Alan by doing Guy Stuff with him: riding a scooter around New York, playing video games, making music together, going to a Mel Brooks marathon. Alan wants to help Charlie confront his past and return to some semblance of a normal life, but Charlie thwarts him at every turn.
One of the great assets of Reign Over Me is its photography, from Russ T. Alsobrook. From the opening credits sequence in which a scooter weaves gracefully through the streets of New York, the view amounts to a love letter to NYC. James Rocchi, who reviewed this movie at SXSW, felt that Charlie's tragedy didn't need to be 9/11-related, that it could be tied into loss of family in any situation, but it's the New York setting that gives his tragedy some context. The parts of the city we see in the film seem unaltered since 9/11, as opposed to Charlie's world being entirely changed, and we can see why and how he's repressing the painful past. The soundtrack is also fabulous -- Alan keeps picking on Charlie's taste in music, but I tended to side with Charlie and it's his music that we hear, from Bruce Springsteen to The Who to The Pretenders.
On the other hand, too many events in the film don't make sense within the storyline, but are obviously placed so we can see a character's reaction. For example, Alan's dad dies, and he finds out while he's with Charlie. Charlie's complete non-reaction and non-sympathy stuns Alan as well as the audience. But apart from the funeral and a scene where Alan looks a little teary-eyed, Alan doesn't seem to be at all affected by his dad's death. Shortly after, we see him back at work, hanging with Charlie, his usual self, and if he's repressing something, that repression never backs up on him in the way that Charlie's repression does. It's as though the dad died just so we can see how Charlie reacts; the effect on Alan is inconsistent with the movie's themes and seems terribly unrealistic.
The dialogue is often weak and unrealistic -- choppy and awkward. Charlie's dialogue occasionally draws inappropriate laughs, probably because of Sandler's delivery. One scene near the end of the film was supposed to be touching and emotional, but the audience couldn't stop laughing. I'm not sure whether the scene didn't work, or whether this was the laughter of relief from the pent-up emotional drama preceding the scene. The movie contains a lot of one-liners to counterbalance its dramatic elements, but drama takes precedence over comedy.
Sandler and Cheadle are both good; Sandler manages to twist his usual man-boy persona into a man repressing a huge amount of pain. His characters are usually neat and trim, but Charlie is all over the place, both physically and emotionally. I always like watching Cheadle, and can empathize a little with the female patients who crush on Alan. The lead actors are surrounded by a supporting cast that often seems wasted: Jada Pinkett Smith as yet another wife who just doesn't understand and has a tendency to nag (sigh), Melinda Dillon is barely recognizable as Charlie's mother in law, Ted Raimi is woefully underused as Charlie's lawyer, and even Donald Sutherland shows up briefly as the
Reign Over Me works as a melodrama, except that it's too long -- 124 minutes and they don't fly by. I felt like 20 minutes could have been chopped off easily, perhaps during the therapy scenes -- in fact, all the scenes with Liv Tyler tended to drag, and Sugarman, the character played by writer-director Mike Binder, seemed completely unnecessary. To enjoy this movie, you have to look past the small difficulties and inconsistencies (and gender stereotyping) in character and story, soak in the images and the music, and focus on the delicate and interesting friendship between the two main characters.