Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Oppressive Mood Theater Continues With The Spoon-fed Reign Over Me!

The Good: Performances by the great cast, Compelling story, Use of mood
The Bad: Underdeveloped relationship between Alan and his wife, Spoonfeeds the important character elements, Lack of decent bonus features
The Basics: Despite a great start, this character-centered drama falls short when it tries to be something different and dumbs itself down for the audience.

There are a number of movies I have seen that begin with a great deal of potential only to fall flat in the middle and end. Usually, it comes from a setup that is extraordinary that ultimately falls flat. Movies that set themselves up for greatness, but then collapse away from that greatness leave me disappointed. Lately, it seems this happens most frequently with me when a movie dumbs itself down and makes what is implied more obvious. I like films that engage me and assume I am both intelligent and engaged.

The latest film to set itself up with intelligence and subtlety only to turn around and disappoint me in the latter portions is Mike Binder's Reign Over Me. What begins with promise degenerates into a film that sacrifices its potential and subtlety for explicit and obvious conflict that is nowhere near as engaging. Given the quality of the first half of the film, it is only that which keeps this from being both unwatchable and even making it to a cointoss for a "recommend/not recommend." Yes, as I begin this review, I'm not sure which way I'm falling yet.

While driving from his troubled dental practice one night, Alan Johnson sees his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman riding a Segue through the streets of New York City. Charlie, adorned with giant headphones, does not acknowledge Alan and a few weeks later when they run into one another, he does not seem to remember him. Charlie, exhibiting all of the signs of shellshock, slowly recalls Alan as his roommate and the two return to Charlie's apartment which he is in the process of redoing the kitchen of.

Soon, Alan is spending more and more time with Charlie, despite Charlie's occasional violent outbursts. This strains his marriage to his wife and she wonders why Alan is so obsessed with helping Charlie. While fighting a lawsuit from a woman who made a pass at him in his office, Alan struggles to get Charlie into counseling to deal with the trauma he is experiencing in regards to the loss of his wife and daughters.

Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, Reign Over Me becomes unsatisfied with being a struggle between one man and his sense of loss and another man's efforts to save him. It degenerates into a courtroom drama and a piece that attempts to add a dramatic tension outside the mood piece that makes it work successfully. But more than that, in its latter portion, it makes explicit the loss Charlie Fineman is experiencing and in the process, it dumbs down all that was clever about itself.

Writer and director Mike Binder, whose only other work I had seen before this was Man About Town (reviewed here!), scatters like breadcrumbs the allusions that Charlie's wife and daughters were aboard one of the planes that was hijacked and destroyed on September 11, 2001. Up until the moment that is actually spelled out for the viewer, the film is clever, smart and bold. The universal act of a survivor of the act of violence done against the nation is made as a very personal character struggle. We have not seen anything on those left behind before now and Binder starts it out as something clever and vital and heart wrenching. The moment it is made explicit and the courtroom drama that the movie descends into after that become something significantly less and it feels and views like simple, dull pandering. What was a character study is transformed into a political statement and the movie does not work on that front at all.

Reign Over Me works when it is a deeply personal story and Binder and his cast pull that off beautifully for a time. The conflict that arises from Alan and Janeane is oversimplified, but it acts as a foil to the conflict and struggles between Alan and Charlie. In other words, as Alan tries to intervene in Charlie's life and set him back on a path to normalcy, he does so at the expense of his relationship with his wife. Alan and Janeane share a very cold, rational marriage, whereas Charlie's wounds make him a very passionate - if completely dysfunctional - character. the magic of the contrast is lessened some in the latter portion of the film wherein Janeane is barely featured and the conflict between her and Alan is completely sublimated to the Charlie legal story.

Reign Over Me would be a far better movie if only it had continued with the two character struggles and worked harder to develop the two relationships that pull Alan in very different directions. Indeed, the peak of the movie is quite possibly the moment when Alan realizes that he is not happy in his marriage and that he is gaining some satisfaction out of trying to put Charlie's life back together. The consequences of that realization, though, fail to resonate when Charlie's in-laws pop back into the movie to cause him legal grief . . . for no good reason.

Reign Over Me also has decent use of music and a directoral style that Binder deserves some credit for. The film looks good and Charlie's obsession and connection to music allows for a decent soundtrack to arise from it. But more than the cinematography, it is the character depth that works, which makes it all the more disappointing when Binder surrenders to absurd plot elements to finish off the story.

Charlie's story is far too complex to be resolved through the forced conflict of the legal battle that ensues and that abrupt right turn in the movie leaves viewers with a sour taste in their mouth. Indeed, it is Charlie's complexity that leads to a mood that is dark and compelling throughout most of Reign Over Me. This is not an upper of a movie and Charlie's sullen and shell-shocked nature, combined with his occasional loud and angry outbursts, makes Reign Over Me a difficult movie to watch. That difficulty is mediated by the sense the viewer has that the film is going somewhere. Unfortunately, it gets lost along the way and when it gets lost, it gets lost in the tallest of the tall grasses.

As for the acting, much has been made of Adam Sandler's ability to perform in Reign Over Me. I assert that those who make a fuss over Sandler's performance as Charlie simply did not see his genius performance in Punch-Drunk Love (reviewed here!). In that, as in Reign Over Me, Sandler illustrates that he can be edgy, dangerous and still create a character that is not silly or stupidly crazy. Sandler's Charlie is deeply empathetic and pitiable and it is much of Sandler's work that makes him that way. Sandler - even in some of his more ridiculous comedies - has exhibited the ability to go from quiet to violently angry in the blink of an eye. So, when Charlie is provoked by difficult questions he does not want to answer, the performance Sandler gives is one that is shocking, but not when one considers the source. This is what Sandler is good at, arguably a master of.

The real acting genius in Reign Over Me comes from star Don Cheadle. Cheadle continues to impress as an actor who has great range and in this movie, he performs in a way I've not seen from him before. He easily emotes the strain in his character's marriage with minimal lines but explicit body language through the beginning of the movie. In his earliest scenes, Cheadle makes Alan seem henpecked and disinterested in the life he has through the way he moves more than anything his character says. This is almost the definition of great acting. Cheadle mirrors Sandler's ability to play a tormented character and in Reign Over Me the portrayal of lovelessness in contrast to loss of love is played out with genius by Sandler and Cheadle. Cheadle, though, provides an impossible-to-define solid quality that roots the viewer with Alan, despite his disaffected quality in his performance. It is Cheadle that makes the shaky end at all watchable with the compassion he portrays.

On DVD, Reign Over Me has remarkably few bonus features. There is a featurette on the making of the movie which is not incredible or memorable and a jam session with Sandler and Cheadle. The only other thing on the disc is a photo montage which seems somewhat pointless after watching the movie.

So, here at the end, I am left to consider the impression this left with me. Fans of drama will love the beginning; it is dark, murky and compelling. But the people to whom that appeals most will be disappointed when the film dumbs itself down in the middle and end. As a result, it's hard to recommend this for the buy.

For other films featuring Jada Pinkett Smith, please check out my reviews of:
The Women
The Matrix Revolutions
The Matrix Reloaded
Princess Mononoke


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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