Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
We have a strange relationship in this country with comedians who suddenly turn to a dramatic role. When it works well, audiences (and occasionally critics) jump on board and champion the actor’s range. But there’s a more cynical side to the conversation that happens almost simultaneously, as many generally see the move as the actor or actress’s chance to chase “legitimacy” and win an Oscar. Sadly, the Academy hasn’t entirely gotten on board with this strategy just yet unless your name was Robin Williams. That hasn’t stopped plenty of comedians from trying, year after year, including one Adam Sandler. Which leads me to ask: What do we, as a culture, want from Sandler?
Despite never receiving Academy recognition, Sandler has been almost universally praised for his rare dramatic turns, especially when working with a director that knows how to utilize him, like Paul Thomas Anderson or Judd Apatow. And yet his bread and butter, which he used to rise to stardom, has always been in the realm of comedy. So why does it seem like we swoon for Sandler to go dramatic more often than not? Is it because the majority of his comedies are lazily written and haphazardly thrown together? Do we — and here I’m referring to men and women my age, who grew up with Sandler — simply long for his early days when he was still trying to prove himself? It’s clear that Sandler has plenty of dramatic talent and the clout to pick whatever projects he’s interested in, which makes today’s entry, Reign Over Me, all the more interesting.
Maybe Sandler did, in fact, have dreams of Oscar glory when signing on to director Mike Binder’s project. Maybe he just wanted to prove that his praise for Punch-Drunk Love wasn’t a fluke. Maybe he wanted to paint a loving tribute to his hometown of New York after the darkest period in its history. Unfortunately, Sandler’s captivating performance remains one of the few things to recommend about Reign Over Me.
To my admittedly limited recollection, no successful film has yet to be made to truly and accurately capture the events of 9/11 through fictional characters. The most successful was 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in that it received a Best Picture nomination during a relatively weak year for movies. The plot synopsis for Reign Over Me may mention 9/11, but that aspect barely feels essential to the story. And now we’ve run into the central issue that holds the film back: Binder, who also wrote the script, tries too hard to weave together too many plot threads, and the resulting quilt comes up short.
Reign Over Me tells the story of a man named Charlie (Sandler), whose once-promising life has been debilitated by grief after the death of his wife and three daughters on 9/11. Thrusting himself into Charlie’s life is his old college roommate, Alan (Don Cheadle), a successful dentist. Alan is experiencing marital problems of his own and dealing with a pesky patient who sues his dental practice for sexual harassment (he’s innocent, don’t worry). But wait, there’s more! Throw in a scene or two with Charlie’s former in-laws and their concerns for him, the internal politics of Alan’s other dental partners and a courtroom drama in the third act, and you have most — but not all — of the plots and subplots at stake in the film. Although Sandler and Cheadle’s scenes together take up the bulk and the two have believable chemistry together, it gets harder and harder to get the rest of the film to tread water and stay alive for the entire running time. Consider the subplot in which Alan believes he spends too much time with his wife and has lost his sense of himself; indeed, Alan’s various storylines feel like they could populate an entire film by themselves. The script plants that seed very early on and doesn’t return to it until the very end of the film. By the time Alan brings the issue back up, we’ve almost completely forgotten about it.
What’s most frustrating about Reign Over Me, despite it being sold as a “9/11 movie,” is that the tragedy could almost be taken out entirely without changing the film’s overall tone. We learn that Charlie’s family was on board one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on that fateful day, but I found myself wondering: Why did it have to be that plane? Change the event to any other day, any other event, and the impact feels no less personal to Charlie. There are some brief moments where Binder hints at the inescapable nature of Charlie’s grief, which haunts him whenever he turns on the news, but those moments are too fleeting to leave any long-lasting emotional impact.
Thankfully, Sandler’s performance manages to gloss over the film’s most glaring holes. It’s unfortunately too common for an actor to play a character suffering from any kind of mental illness by ramping up the affectations and quirks. Sandler just plays Charlie as a man who never knows whether he needs to be left alone or to reach out to someone for help. Despite the film’s troubles with its stories, Binder does a strong job of realistically writing each character. It’s not often when you can say that about a drama involving characters with PTSD and marital problems because they tend to be written with big emotional swings whose problems tend to get overblown.
Reign Over Me remains the one and only outright drama under the Happy Madison banner. While the film is still the production company’s highest-rated effort yet (scoring a 61 on Metacritic), it’s understandable why it’s the only one, as it’s one of the lowest-grossing outputs ($22.2 million against a $20 million budget). Would I relish the opportunity to discuss another dramatic role from Sandler in the future? Of course I would, but, for better or worse, the man frequently has more on his mind than chasing any awards glory.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Donald Sutherland!!! Donald Sutherland?!?! Donald.Sutherland.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. Binder himself plays the character of Bryan Sugarman, a character that just kind of … comes into the film without any introduction but enters as if we’re supposed to know everything about him.
- Fart Joke Counter: None. Wise choice, honestly.
- The Walkout Test: Not only would the person in question stay throughout this movie, but they would almost assuredly come out with an empty box of tissues.
- NEXT TIME: Is I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry dumb and offensive or the most woke movie of all time? Tune in and find out!