Cinema Signal:

Post-traumatic and Acute Stress Disorders:
The Latest Assessment and Treatment Strategies
by Matthew J. Friedman
(in Paperback from Amazon)
. "Reign Over Me"

Two college roommates had predictably parallel lives and destinies of professional success... until 9/11, when the family of one of them was aboard one of the planes that was destroyed. Which subject makes this Adam Sandler vehicle like none other that he's done. It's a buddy movie that gets into the profoundly uncomedic territory of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Interestingly, in its seriousness, it runs the risk of displeasing the faithful Sandler following while attracting some of those who have the actor on their unwatchable list. I'm one, and I never thought I'd find myself recommending a Sandler film.

We can all be flexible and want for a bit of a stretch, and Sandler here shows just how far he can take his morose character. Written and directed by Mike Binder, no stranger to the dysfunctional ("The Upside of Anger"), he winds up the dramatic spring by introducing us first to the successful side of the relationship, Manhattan dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle). His practice is thriving but life isn't perfect.

His family life, particularly his relationship with wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), is stifling because of things he can't express. This is a plot point to make him human and to avoid angelic overtones to the selfless commitments Binder is going to have his unsettled dentist make.

Charlie Fineman (Sandler) is a familiar name in the Johnson household, only a short time having elapsed since his and Johnson's graduation day. So it's not a complete surprise when Johnson, stuck in traffic on his way home, spots Fineman carrying a can of paint out of a hardware store and cutting a path down a city street. The sighting seems to answer the classic question he and Janeanne were just asking, "Whatever happened to Fineman?"

Johnson calls out to his old buddy, but the traveler's ears are covered by earphones.

Later, when Johnson spots him a 2nd time, as inevitably he must if this story is going to get off the ground, the surprise is in the scruffy look of his long lost friend. Johnson has no idea what could have caused this deterioration in the appearance of his old buddy. But as bad as he looks, his manner seems even more evident as retardation. Fineman is abundantly suspicious, even frightened. He doesn't even remember Johnson or, at least, says as much. His behavior is distant, suspicious, bordering on autistic.

Through some processing of the idea of having a friend, however, Fineman not only accepts Johnson but comes to rely on his companionship, demanding as much of his time as possible. Fineman allows Johnson into his apartment, admonishing him to "always take off your shoes inside." Fineman is occupied in repainting, refurbishing the kitchen and, mostly, playing a video game like a 14-year old in an arcade. His passion for it, however, is from an altogether different source -- one that Johnson tries to discover as he willingly takes up the controls at Fineman's insistence.

Back in the office, Johnson, is presented with a new problem. A sultry and beautiful new patient named Donna Remar (exquisite Saffron Burrows, "Troy"). She gets him alone in his dentisty room and puts the moves on him, offering fellatio to the dentist she *apparently finds so desirable. But it's strictly fatal attraction to Johnson and he demands she leave. She does, but she later sues him for sexual harassment, a lawsuit which could easily bring Johnson's practice down. His partners are not amused.

In the course of the relationship between the old buddies, the bond, and Johnson's generosity of time and total commitment to helping him, Johnson discovers that Fineman's virtual retreat from anything that could be called a life is his coping mechanism for the loss of his wife, two kids and dog who died in one of the 9/11 planes. Unable to face the memory, Johnson has closed off contact with anything that might arouse it, including with his in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon).

As the difficulty of guiding his friend out of his protective shell increases, Johnson's commitment to finding a way of doing it takes on the aspects of a truly steadfast friendship. He ignores the reactive rants and insults his suggestions bring on, understanding the desperation from which it springs.

As audience, it works on our emotional empathy as a result of a very caring cast, not the least of which is Liv Tyler as psychotherapist Angela Oakhurst. The subtle exposure of a prevalent mental disease in society with a victim and his support network grapples with an effective way to break its bonds.

This is clearly not familiarly comfortable Sandler territory, though the inept trod-upon, dysfunctional clown character that is his trademark contributes considerable sympathy to both sides of a brotherly relationship facing the mental disease. A few good laughs sprinkle some air into the gravity of the subject matter. The title appears to be derived from The Who's "Love Reign Over Me."

Cheadle, a guy everyone seems to want these days because of his growing portfolio of fine work, (perhaps launched onto the "A" list with his "Hotel Rwanda") is given this excellent opportunity to exercise his unique qualities of decency and humanity. If he hasn't defined that term yet, this role should put him in the film lexicon.

Although the scenario develops a few cracks of awkwardness now and then -- as Sandler's schtick is prone to do -- his Dylanesque darkness of the mentally wounded slips into your soft crevices where sympathy and emotion lie. Stories emanating from 9/11 are still very sore for many of us, but I found that this case of life-altering denial and retreat, as a result of that cataclysm, contains a thread of truth and perceptiveness that affected me with penetrating sorrow. The realities of disorder stemming from 9/11, or from the battlefield, aren't deniable.

Again, as a hardnose never before smitten by the Sandler cum Chaplin sad sack banality, I'm as surprised as anyone that I'd be recommending one of his films. But, there it is.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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