Writer/director Mike Binder has given us a character hodgepodge named Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler). We see him riding a motorized scooter around Manhattan in zero traffic. (This guy must be magic.) Following him at a distance of several car-lengths, Binder's camera and Sandler's depiction -- Fineman cutting long slaloming arcs across multiple lanes -- show a man deeply disconnected from the world. Once he bumps into his old roommate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), we realize he's got other problems. He's suffering some form of amnesia, displays the fact-obsessive trait of certain kinds of autism, has the childlike compulsions of the challenged, and the avoidance characteristics of assorted other psychological abnormalities. These, taken together, form Binder's version of post-traumatic stress disorder, which Fineman has been afflicted with since the death of his wife and daughters in the 9/11 attacks. The film then, is Fineman's journey, with Alan, back to a state of quasi-normalcy.
Credit Binder with not making this an easy or clean journey. Credit the cast with making difficult characterization choices. "I could see them burning," Sandler says at one point, through tears, almost under his breath. It's a gut-wrenching, powerful statement made more so by the fact that you can barely hear him make it. Sandler's never done nuance well before; here he does it perfectly. This is even true when descending into the violent rages that have become his staple.
Previously, even Sandler's more sensitive characters (the sensitive/angry guy from The Wedding Singer, the sensitive/angry guy from Punch Drunk Love, et al.) would hem and haw emotionally, but drive their fists forcefully into objects and people. As Fineman, the impotence and swirling dread that Sandler feels when sedate translate perfectly into his outbursts of aggression. Tearing apart Johnson's dental practice at one point, he stumbles and claws and bellows at whatever is around him. He's lashing out indiscriminately: Having been pushed past his limits, he's trying to protect himself from the whole of the world.
Binder has hit on a good story that he tells to the best of his ability as a screenwriter and director. The flaws are sometimes glaring: The hodgepodge of disorders he masquerades as PTSD are inconstant, with certain idiosyncrasies bubbling up only once for comedic effect. His shrinks, too, aren't very professional. Liv Tyler especially has no idea what to do with her character. If Binder had played more to the clinical the film would have been a spectacular mess.
Binder recognizes those weaknesses, though, and steers clear. He focuses more on the interpersonal, finding Fineman's salvation in friendship, not psychiatry. Binder has also surrounded himself with the kind of actors (even, especially Sandler) who turn storytelling weaknesses into strengths of character.
It's an admirable team effort that doesn't pause overlong on the specific atrocity of 9/11. The film only begins there, normalizing it across the gamut of human experience. Like suturing up a wide, deep gash that isn't healing on its own, Reign Over Me is messy and incomplete, but it's an admirable attempt. (Rated R)