Charlie Fineman, the shut-down Sept. 11 widower in "Reign Over Me," is heartbreaking at times. He might have been heartbreaking all the time were he not played by Adam Sandler.
There's no question that Sandler invested great energy in his performance, which can be quite stirring. But his mannered, muttered line readings detract from the character. Too often, we catch him acting.
It's also the way Charlie has shut down that presents a problem for "Reign Over Me," a flawed but moving film.
Still unable to discuss his wife and three daughters, who were passengers on a hijacked plane, Charlie regresses. When not immersed in video games or riding his stand-up motorized scooter, he uses inappropriate words as if testing them out, like a kid would.
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This approach might have worked better with a different actor. We've seen Sandler as a grown man stuck in boyhood too often.
But Don Cheadle is superb as Alan Johnson, Charlie's roommate from dental school. Cheadle lets us know, within the space of a few scenes and with carefully modulated displays of emotion, exactly who this man is. A successful cosmetic dentist, Alan is a caring husband, father and son who is too hesitant about expressing his own needs and concerns.
Just how well Cheadle has established Alan's personality becomes apparent when the script forces Alan to act out of character.
It happens not long after Alan sees Charlie riding his scooter and tries to renew their friendship. At a club where Charlie plays drums for a punk band, Alan asks Charlie about his dating life, since he's now "single."
The Alan we know and love would never be so tactless.
That's the thing about filmmaker Mike Binder ("The Upside of Anger"; HBO's "The Mind of the Married Man"). The guy seems to have profound insight into, and compassion for, human behavior. Yet he also can be a clumsy storyteller. These qualities duke it out in "Reign Over Me."
Binder shows great understanding of the nature of grief, and especially grief surrounding the events of Sept. 11, 2001, about which many of us feel a kind of amorphous sadness. "Reign Over Me" distills that sadness into a personal story of loss, conceiving of a level of grief that seems nearly inconceivable.
Charlie's pain is bottomless, which is why he distracts himself with headphones and his MP3 player, to try to keep himself going. His own dental practice, and dental school, now seem so far away that he tells Alan he doesn't remember him. But he accepts Alan's invitation to grab some coffee.
Charlie soon has a play pal for Mel Brooks movie marathons and shopping for Bruce Springsteen and Pretenders albums on vinyl. Alan hops on the back of Charlie's scooter, riding through New York streets that are lovingly photographed but underpopulated, as if to represent Charlie's loss.
Alan wants to reach out to Charlie. But in befriending him, this dentist is also trying to heal himself. Entering Charlie's world of diversion frees Alan from responsibility for a little while.
The role of Alan's wife might have bordered on thankless had Jada Pinkett Smith not invested her with such intelligence. Aware of the self-interest in her husband's do-gooding, she calls him on it.
Binder errs in introducing a gorgeous patient (Saffron Burrows) who desires more than just a nice smile. This character, a product of pure male fantasy, is about as natural to the story as veneers are to patients' mouths.
Exuding great warmth, Liv Tyler is believable as a therapist who works in Alan's office building. But the therapist's actions go too far beyond unorthodox to be professional.
Binder plays Charlie's old friend and money manager, a character who might be unnecessary to the story. He's certainly inappropriate at times.
But any extraneous elements seem to fall away as we gain greater insight into Charlie's devastation. At this point, it's not a matter of whether the viewer will cry, but how much.
**1/2 out of four stars.