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Sandler, Cheadle ‘Reign’ supreme in new film

Rama Gottumukkala | Tuesday, April 3, 2007

“I hate putting fake teeth on fake people,” admits Alan Johnson to his wayward pal Charlie Fineman in one of the most earnest moments of “Reign Over Me.” Like so many professionals his age, Alan (Don Cheadle) lives a routine, not a life: Drop off the kids, apply veneers at his dental practice for eight hours, hurry home, hit the sack by 10:30. Then rinse and repeat.

Charlie (Adam Sandler), on the other hand, lives the life any married 40-year-old would envy, or at least wistfully miss. He splits his time between eating Chinese food, watching Mel Brooks marathons, scouring for vintage LPs and motoring around town on his scooter. It’s a carefree existence, but it’s one tinged with sadness.

We learn early on that Alan and Charlie were roommates at dental school, but Charlie doesn’t remember Alan upon their first encounter. Why Alan pursues Charlie so doggedly is never explicitly stated, although survivor’s guilt may be the most obvious reason.

Charlie lost his entire family to the 9/11 attacks. He’s been a shell ever since, isolating himself further with each passing year. Writer-director Mike Binder chose quite an ironic surname for Charlie, because this character is far from fine. He prefers to turn the volume on his iPod to ear-splitting highs when confronted with the truth, or even the mere mention of it. Post-traumatic stress disorder is Charlie’s psychological diagnosis, but that never deters Alan in his quest to restore Charlie to himself.

Over the course of this quietly moving and self-effacing film, we come to appreciate the two-way street of the narrative. Charlie may be more damaged, but Alan needs Charlie just as much. It’s a subtle difference because Alan’s life doesn’t scream out for a savior. Binder smartly lets us sit with Alan in his seemingly untroubled – and rather boring – life to show the true impact of Charlie’s reappearance.

Character-driven films like “Reign Over Me” succeed on the strength of their performances, and Binder brings together an unlikely but formidable duo in Cheadle and Sandler. Both actors are brilliant here. Beginning with the reserved comfort that accompanies the rekindling of a lost friendship, their relationship builds and evolves to one of deep trust.

The best scenes in the film are often the ones where Charlie and Alan are by themselves, zipping around New York City by night as they might have done decades ago. Their surface smiles and easy laughter are charming signs of a flourishing friendship.

When Cheadle’s career draws to a close many years from now, we might not remember “Reign Over Me” as his finest performance, but rather one more example of how brilliantly consistent he was at his craft. He is one of our finest performers, able to exude the sincerest of emotions with ease.

While Cheadle’s performance is to be expected, Sandler’s turn as Charlie is a revelation. He brings a nuanced, childlike wonder to the role that is miles away from the childish tantrums that made his fame. His previous effort in “Punch-Drunk Love” hinted at this range, but “Reign Over Me” offers only our second glimpse at his potential for affecting drama. Like Jim Carrey before him, Sandler is on the cusp of shedding his comedic typecasting for roles that are far meatier, and hopefully far more rewarding.

After another late night out with Charlie, Alan tries to explain himself to his vexed wife. “I was stuck in Charlie World. I couldn’t leave,” Alan pleads.

Looking past his sheepish spousal façade, it’s easy to see why Alan didn’t want to leave Charlie World, and the feeling is mutual. Their swelling friendship anchors this warm-hearted film, one that’s genuine, sweet and sentimental without ever becoming sappy.