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Hungry Hearts Seek Solace in Reign Over Me

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 14, 2008
Hungry Hearts Seek Solace in <i>Reign Over Me</i>

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.

With the acclaim that’s sure to come Sandler’s way, it’s easy to overlook another solid performance from Cheadle, whose credentials need no burnishing. He was unforgettable in Hotel Rwanda and has been a solid presence in the films of director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Oceans 11). Here, his emotional breakthrough is much more low-key than Charlie’s, but beautiful in the way it navigates temptation and embraces traditional morality.

Loneliness and isolation are not God’s design. Whether married or single, friends help us when we face trouble. “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10).

The characters in Reign Over Me do not look heavenward for help, but the movie’s joy is in its story of old friends reunited—in what that friendship means for one man’s ability to face reality, and for the other’s realization of the blessings he’s already been given.

The film’s conclusion, with its signs of hope and rest, once again brings to mind Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”:

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone


  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple profanities; anti-gay slur; crude reference to a woman’s breasts; a crude joke about prison.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A bar scene; a man drinks alone.
  • Sex/Nudity:  An offer of oral sex.
  • Violence:  Discussion of family members who perished in a plane crash; reckless driving; a man throws a drink in another man’s face; men fight; a man threatens a psychiatrist; a man points a gun and tries to provoke police to shoot him.