Baity gets punch drunk at Ground Zero

by Glen Baity

There’s a scene in Punch Drunk Love, far and away one of my favorite films of the last 10 years, where Barry (played by Adam Sandler) goes nuts after being teased by his emasculating sisters. In a blind rage he smashes a series of windows only to look immediately embarrassed at what he’s done. It’s the first moment in the film that displays the volcanic rage at the heart of its ostensibly tender protagonist.

It was a revealing moment for Adam Sandler, who had up until that point played his man-child shtick for laughs, and cheap ones at that. Punch Drunk Love showed that Sandler’s odd personality, under the right circumstances, can be used to tremendous dramatic effect.

Since that film came out I’ve been waiting for him to dive as deeply into a character, and with Reign Over Me he finally has. Charlie Fineman, on paper, is remarkably similar to Punch Drunk’s Barry: a soft-spoken, affable weirdo given to fits of rage at seemingly random moments.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Not remotely.

Charlie’s family – his wife, three daughters, even his dog – died in the 9-11 attacks. Once a successful dentist, he retreated from everything in his life, quitting his job, avoiding his friends and shutting his mind to his memories both happy and sad.

A chance encounter with his old college roommate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), brings the shell-shocked Charlie wincing out of his shelter for the first time since Sept. 12, 2001.

Reign Over Me follows the two men as they rekindle an old, comfortable friendship. Like the college students they used to be, the two hang out, play video games, go record shopping and take in all-night Mel Brooks marathons. Alan, in the process of running away from his own problems, tries to help his combustible friend work through his. Some missed notes aside, it’s a beautiful story that cuts right to the heart of oour need for trust and connection in a sometimes awful world.

Though it sounds unbearably heavy, the film has plenty of light moments that give its audience room to breathe. That will come as no surprise to anyone who saw writer/director Mike Binder’s last film, 2005’s The Upside of Anger, which also cast light on its dark themes with wit and warmth. Binder is an artist who sees comedy and tragedy in most every moment. Anyone who has found themselves nearly laughing at a funeral (you know who you are) will find something to love here.

Sandler’s performance is thoroughly winning, at times heartbreaking, and constitutes some of his finest work. But it wouldn’t be half what it is without Cheadle’s counterweight. A tremendous actor whose contributions are far too often overlooked, Cheadle inhabits his character every bit as well as Sandler, his palpable concern for his old friend ultimately superseding his unhappiness with his own life. Unfortunately, he spends an unnecessarily large portion of the film tied up in a subplot that, while its purpose is clear, doesn’t ring as true as Binder obviously intends.

This could also be said for the character’s main story, concerning Alan’s stifling relationship with his overbearing better half (played by a mostly wasted Jada Pinkett Smith). It pales next to Charlie’s story, and it seems like Binder knows it, as the film’s third act largely ignores Alan’s private life in favor of solving the problems plaguing Charlie’s. Still, Cheadle’s chemistry with Sandler sells the story, and it’s easy to get invested in the happiness of both men.

It’s been five and a half years since 9-11, which seems like a long time. It also seems like a long time since last year, when we were debating whether the first crop of 9-11 films was coming out too soon. United 93 and World Trade Center chronicled the events of the day, but Reign Over Me is the first film – at least the first that I’ve seen – to examine the catastrophe’s lingering effects in a world that, at least to a degree, has moved on. Whatever you thought about the first two, this one certainly doesn’t come too soon. To the contrary, its timeliness is universal. Grief has no expiration date, and Charlie Fineman’s struggle is the struggle of anyone who still grapples with a loss years after the fact.

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