Saturday, April 14, 2007

Reign Over Me

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that comedians who become famous in comedy movies will eventually want to do dramas. Jerry Lewis, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey - you know what they say about the "funny" man who's crying on the inside.

The latest comedian to stretch his dramatic chops is Adam Sandler, best known previously for playing rather "simple" characters in such teen-friendly comedies as Billy Madison, The Waterboy, Big Daddy and Little Nicky. (Although I must admit to being a long-time fan of the aggro golfing movie, Happy Gilmore). His last film, Click, attempted some drama, but that fell somewhat flat with audiences, who were expecting Sandler's character to spend the whole 90 minute running time using his powerful remote control to freeze-frame jogging women so he could ogle their heaving bosoms. That's what the advertising suggested, anyway.

Reign Over Me appears to have learned a lesson from Click, and has been marketed as a drama from day one. It's a step in the direction of drama for Sandler, but there's still too much inadvertent "funny-ness"to really hit home as a serious piece. It also suffers from being far too long, having yet another tedious support role for a woman, and for giving equal weight to the story of the other main character, played by Don Cheadle.

Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a former dentist whose wife and three daughters died in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Faced with such an enormous trauma, Charlie's reaction was to switch off, quit work, never talk about his family, and even regress to a younger, pre-family version of himself. We enter Charlie's life through Don Cheadle's character Alan Johnson - and Charlie's former roommate at dental college. Alan has a loving family and a good practice, but an unfortunate habit of attracting crazy but beautiful female stalkers, and a growing mid-life crisis. His wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cardboard cut-out "wifey" role) and two daughters are great, but he yearns for the lost freedom and silliness of his younger days, which he rediscovers through Charlie.

The main problem is a man approaching middle-age and feeling a bit of ennui in no way equals the tragedy of a man losing his entire family in the most infamous act of terrorism in recent times. Writer/director Mike Binder seems to have decided that telling a story solely from Charlie's perspective would be hard for the audience to relate to. Fair enough. But the focus on Alan and his family takes away from the magnitude of Charlie's situation. It also adds to the length of the film, which was always going to be long, because you can't just magically fix someone like Charlie, who's been out of his mind for a good five years. At 124 minutes, it isn't even that long, but it feels like it due to the numerous buddy scenes, which lead to psychologist scenes, which lead to courtroom scenes, and so on.

That's not to say there are no good moments: Cheadle is a great actor, and his performance here is testament to that; and Saffron Burrows - a rail thin former model - is surprisingly entertaining as his crazy stalker with problems of her own. Liv Tyler is a bit wide-eyed and vacant as psychologist Angela, but she conveys a good sense of understanding and caring. And Sandler himself has some nice little moments - especially the inevitable scene where he breaks through the fog and talks about his family and what happened to them for the first time. However he's incapable of escaping the raspy, sometimes slurry speaking style that so defines his "simple" characters from those movies listed above. It may be why a group of teenagers sitting up the back at my screening kept guffawing when really it wasn't the time or place. There certainly are moments of comedy, and Sandler has some funny lines, but there's a lot more going on with his character, and with the movie in general and tossing out gags doesn't seem to do it justice.

In summation - a solid attempt at a drama that's sold a bit short by trying to keep fans of Sandler's comedies happy. Let's not even get on to Jada Pinkett-Smith's role of the "good but nagging wife at home".... good to see Hollywood writing complex and intelligent roles for women, isn't it?

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