Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reign Over Me: Adam Sandler In A Bob Dylan Wig, Waving Not Clowning


In Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler is incapable of acting in a normal adult manner. As casting decisions go, this may not seem surprising. Sandler, a graduate of the Saturday Night Live school of comic sophistication, has made a career of critic-proof comedies in which he plays a doofus, a goofball, a meathead or a dimwit. He is the schlub’s schlub.
Lately, though, Sandler has shown signs of versatility. In Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a dimestore retard with a collection of tinned puddings – so far, so Sandler – and then asked him to perform without clowning. He was pathetic, in a good way, which was progress.
Reign Over Me goes further, not least because Sandler is unrecognisable in it, performing from beneath Bob Dylan’s hair. In some circumstances this might seem comic, but it doesn’t here, because writer-director Mike Binder has paired him with Don Cheadle, an actor who transmits likeability without effort.
The two are an odd couple; college roommates who have drifted apart. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) has become a dentist, with a fine home, a wife, and children. Sandler’s character, Charlie Fineman (the name is a clue) has dropped below the radar. He has no job, no friends, and – apparently – no memory of his previous life. He lives entirely in the moment, pursuing the distractions of a male student. At home, he batters the drums in his own practice studio, or plays Shadow of the Colossus on a giant flatscreen television. He eats take-out food, and sidesteps loneliness by riding the empty streets of New York’s East Village on a Go-Ped scooter. When it all gets too much, he seeks cheap laughs at the all-night retrospective of Mel Brooks movies. He does no work, busying himself by endlessly remodelling the kitchen in which he never cooks. In everything he does, he loses himself.
Charlie is a clearly a distant cousin of Taxi Driver's anti-hero Travis Bickle, a character whose moral clarity and charming nihilism have come to haunt filmmakers of a certain age. In recent memory, both Christian Bale (Harsh Times) and Ed Norton (Death in the Valley) have channelled their inner De Niro without ever overcoming a sense of pastiche. Not surprisingly, in a film which patrols the nocturnal streetscapes of Manhattan with a sense of dread and doomed romance, Sandler is given his Travis moment, standing with a loaded gun in front of a diner painted like a yellow checker cab. The way that scene evolves says much about the changing neuroses of New York.
Reign Over Me is a post 9/11 movie, but Binder introduces the subject gently. To Alan, Charlie is “the one from dental school whose family was on the plane”, but he is also a reminder of a life without responsibility. Alan, as much as Charlie, is in need of rescue. He winces almost imperceptibly when his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Snith) enrols him for an evening class. His sense of inner stagnation is only slightly more evident when she encourages him to sit down and help her complete a jigsaw. Acute trauma may be absent from Alan’s life, but he is emotionally numb – a condition he signals by fashioning accidental meetings with his angelic psychotherapist friend Angela (Liv Tyler) in which he regales her with minor dissatisfactions, none of which is his real problem.
Reign Over Me would work without reference to the Twin Towers. Perhaps it should. At heart, it is a midlife crisis picture, and an exploration of the emotional inarticulacy of men, which is a bleak enough proposition to be going on with. There is an element of male fantasy, too. It is as convenient as it agreeable that the therapist is Liv Tyler, and that Alan’s peaceful progress as a dentist is almost derailed by the unwanted attentions of Donna (Saffron Burrows) a beautiful, unhinged female patient who wishes to repay his small efforts at cosmetic dentistry by performing oral sex. Binder seems to be aware that he is having his cake and being eaten by it, and tries to atone by taking his guilt out on Charlie, who blames his incompetence as a therapy patient on the beauty of Angela’s breasts. This seems crass, but it is merely ironic: Charlie is being honest at a time when politeness should dictate otherwise.
The film is at its best when exploring the dumbness of men. The broader theme, of a society racked by post-traumatic stress, is less convincing, particularly in a story which puts so much store in therapy and the need to address problems by articulating them. In the end, it turns into a courtroom drama, with Donald Sutherland playing Solomon when asked to decide on Charlie’s fate.
Audience sympathies are with Charlie throughout, but the director can’t resist underscoring the emotions with a plangent electric piano. And Sandler, finally prised from his cocoon, hits a few wrong notes when trying to convey deep emotion to the parents of his dead wife. His hurt has a comic tone, and the film’s bleak outlook is sugared by bathos.
It’s an open question whether Charlie is better off at the end; his brand of denial has its attractions, not least to the Alans of the world, weighed down by the predictable comforts of success. Who wouldn’t rather be Charlie, watching Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire dance over the widescreen, thinking of nothing?