Reign Over Me" begins with shots of Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) riding his motorized scooter all over New York at night, through streets wide and narrow. Isolated, bedraggled and vulnerable, he seems to embody the wounded spirit of the city. Through a chance encounter with an old friend, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), we learn that Charlie lost his family in one of the 9/11 hijackings. Strong meat for a major studio release, one might think, especially since Charlie goes from being a mentally ill total wreck to being a mentally ill demi-wreck no quick fix for his problems in sight. But lest these hints of realism be taken as a sign that "Reign Over Me" is in any regard a serious work, let it be noted that it surrounds its weighty subject with so much contrived nonsense that after a while the film feels like an affront to real suffering. Usually Hollywood indulges in flights from reality in order to make us feel good. But "Reign Over Me" is a rarity: an escapist downer.
When we meet Charlie, he has withdrawn from his sorrow into an upscale adolescence. He plays video games on a mammoth screen. He's decorated his luxury Manhattan apartment with a life-size Colonel Sanders. He plays drums in a cover band. So completely has he erased his adult life that he does not even recognize Cheadle's Alan, his college roommate and friend through dental school. Full of boyish charm, Charlie nevertheless explodes into paranoid rage at the slightest allusion to the fact that he once had a family. Although his condition is unknown to psychiatry, it is nicely tailored to the demands of movie-making, allowing for swift changes of tone when either gloom or puckishness threatens to pall.
But this movie isn't merely about Charlie's problems. Alan, too, is grappling with a much vaguer form of discontent, the kind bred of too much perfection. He's still living the life Charlie led before 9/11. His dental practice, centered on (what else?) veneers, is thriving. His wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), a Martha Stewart victim, divides her time between advanced photography classes and cooking elegant dinners. And, Alan feels, she keeps him on a short leash.
For Alan, Charlie is not merely an object of pity and concern, but an escape from the old ball-and-chain. Emboldened by his excursions into "Charlieworld," he proclaims, "I'm not some damn Siamese twin! I'm me!" There's a dose of liberating wisdom, writer and director Mike Bender would have us believe, in Charlie's quasi-madness.
In the movie's happiest moments, Charlie and Alan play Huck and Jim, with a scooter for their raft, and the canyonlike avenues of New York for their Mississippi. Here they escape from all the people trying to pull them into the world of family and adult responsibility, most of whom are women, including a dotty young beauty (Saffron Burrows) who threatens to sue Alan for sexual harassment when he turns down her creepy come-on. Very much to the film's detriment, this seemingly tangential matter blossoms into a centerpiece of the final act.
Ultimately, both Charlie and Alan have to learn not to avoid their problems. This is ironic, given that the movie itself is unrepentantly guilty of avoidance to the last degree. Charlie finally runs afoul of the law, and in a way that, in our world, would (thankfully) land him in jail or a psychiatric ward. Instead, he's let go and told to show up days later at a commitment hearing. The denouement includes a judge (Donald Sutherland) who puts Charlie's fate in the hands of his mourning in-laws with the impartial words, "Ask yourself if your daughter would want Charlie locked up in a place like this," and a therapist (Liv Tyler) who, just as appallingly, decides to play Cupid with her unstrung clients.
The shortcomings of the film cannot be laid at the door of the performers. Cheadle is, as always, most interesting to watch. Sandler, playing a fugitive from adulthood, is seldom compelled to shed his trademark persona, and thus does a passable job. The problem is the script's childish understanding of pain. "Reign Over Me" doesn't respect its subject, and it doesn't trust its lead to do more than mumble, smirk and, from time to time, explode. (R) 124 min. * S