DVD Release Date:  October 9, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  March 23, 2007
Rating:  R (for language and some sexual references)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  124 min.
Director:  Mike Binder
Actors:  Don Cheadle, Adam Sandler, Jada Pinkett Smith, Saffron Burrows, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going — “Hungry Heart,” Bruce Springsteen

The lyrics above come from Bruce Springsteen’s The River, an album that plays a conspicuous role in director Mike Binder’s exceptional new movie, Reign Over Me.

Don Cheadle stars as Alan Johnson, a dentist whose family life has left him feeling slowly suffocated despite the best intentions of his loving wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and children. He tells his wife that he wants a few “guy hobbies” to break up the quiet evenings in his immaculate home. Unable to open up to his wife about his concerns, he ambushes a friendly therapist (Liv Tyler) outside her office, unloading his problems even as she gently reminds him that he needs to make an appointment to receive proper counseling.

When Alan sees a former college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), tooling around town on a motor scooter, he calls out to him, but his cries go unanswered. Charlie, ears enveloped by a giant set of headphones, has tuned out the world around him and we soon find out why: Years earlier, Charlie’s wife and daughters died in a plane crash. Later, we learn that they were aboard one of the hijacked flights on Sept. 11, 2001. But Reign Over Me, doesn’t fit with other movies that deal more directly with 9/11, such as United 93 and World Trade Center. Charlie’s pain—the loss of one’s family through tragedy—is about the sudden void created by the death of the people he was closest to, a type of tragedy that, sadly, can happen to any of us on any given day.

The suddenness and scope of Charlie’s loss give Reign Over Me its deep sense of sorrow, but the family and professional struggles of the film’s other protagonist, Alan, tap into a larger sense of human disconnectedness. As he begins to spend more time with Charlie, Alan draws back from his wife. He’s tempted by a sexually aggressive patient (Saffron Burrows) who, we learn, is compensating for the pain of loss (a bad divorce) in her own life. When that encounter leads to legal trouble, he encounters not understanding, but hostility from partners who want him to make the issue go away.

As he juggles his obligations and the expectations of those closest to him, Alan finds refuge in the time spent with Charlie—going out for a drink, playing video games and listening to Bruce Springsteen records. But those peaceful moments conceal the pain with which Charlie has yet to deal. In blotting out memories of his family life, he’s also shunted aside anyone who might remind him of his past. When Alan delicately raises the issue of Charlie’s past life, Charlie reacts violently. “Who sent you?” he screams. “Are you a specialist?” His volatility drives Alan away—until Charlie shows up at Alan’s home, acting as if nothing unusual has occurred.

Alan’s efforts to break through the emotional walls Charlie has erected pay off in a scene that certifies Sandler’s ability to play serious roles. He’s done it before, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, an unusual, stunted parable about grace, but with this performance, he raises his game. He inhabits the role of Charlie to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine any other actor playing the same part.