Of his films that I’ve watched, I never thought of Adam Sandler as a serious or skilled actor, yet here he is as Charlie Fineman, a man who still grieves years onward from the loss of his family in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Despite some missteps in other areas, the movie treats its setting and context with respect, and there are no jokes made at the expense of this disastrous day’s victims or even of the terrorists, who are simply referred to as monsters–“humans” would be better, but the word choices could have been and sometimes are much worse. Don Cheadle plays Sandler’s former college roommate Alan Johnson, a dentist who spends much of the film helping Charlie emotionally recover. (Adam is “Charlie,” and Cheadle is “Alan.” Don’t get confused.) Their friendship forms much of the core of this film, and on the whole, that story is something of a pleasant surprise.
The best of intentions?
Set against a very simple title introduction and opening credits, a man (Sandler’s character) rides a motorized scooter through the mostly empty streets of New York. Several of these calming scenes are found throughout the movie as well as on the DVD menu, and they create a relaxing break from a story that sometimes tries to fill itself with too many conflicts and risks losing its footing. One of these cases begins in the very next scene: Cheadle’s character, who is married, is forced to contend with a woman who immediately begins flirting with him during her own dental visit. If this otherwise earnest drama is having second thoughts about its intentions and is deciding to be a comedy, it’s not working, and these scenes feel as awkward and deeply inappropriate for the audience as they do for the woman’s unwilling “recipient” even when the surrounding context is given detail.
By coincidence, Johnson stumbles across Fineman as the latter walks out of a hardware store carrying buckets of paint, but Charlie is listening to headphones and is unaware of who and what is around him. Alan’s own parents are shown to have a terrible relationship, even going so far as to watch the same television program in different rooms, but little enough is done with this dispute that it feels like a halfhearted attempt to further darken the setting. (Its outcome also comes across as a random occurrence instead of a logical event and doesn’t really help to develop Johnson as a character.) The man and the rest of his family get along well enough, even as Alan has to feign enthusiasm for a photography class he got signed up for without his knowledge. Tellingly, after one character mentions Charlie losing his loved ones even though its implications are far beyond her understanding, Alan’s silent face carries a “there, but for the grace of God, go I” expression in one of the movie’s most striking scenes.
When Alan once again catches up to Charlie for a drink, the latter doesn’t remember his old roommate at all, despite memories being brought up that make for surprisingly low-key and effective comedy. Charlie, in a broken voice, speaks strangely of taking down a “colossus” while on a sort of dimensional journey. Though not always likable because of his erratic behavior, he arguably has some of the most polished character development in the whole movie. Why does he wear headphones? Music has become a huge part of his life, as shown by his enormous record collection. Why does he rattle off trivia facts like nursery rhymes? He’s probably had a lot of time to think. Charlie’s depiction as being mentally and emotionally unwell earns the audience’s sympathy without coming across as being permissive of his more negative personality traits.
The valley of the shadow
Charlie’s own home is a tiny, lonely apartment that looks like a never-finished construction project, save for the lovely kitchen, which gets remodeled over and over. This setting importantly showcases a metaphor running through the whole movie, where he plays the video game Shadow of the Colossus and uses this as a coping mechanism. The depiction is respectful: the movie doesn’t belittle Fineman for the way he spends his time, and the game and its objective aren’t seen as trivial even when being used for comic relief. The main character is tasked with hunting down and slaying these beasts whose height cannot be overemphasized. As the movie hints, much of the game’s focus lies not in brute force but in an understanding of the environment, part of which involves climbing onto these giants. Hence, the message of the game is the same as of the movie itself: sometimes the hardest part of overcoming a problem can be knowing where to even begin.
Consider the tragic context of this movie, then consider this. The colossi in the game are rarely the aggressors. While they will and most certainly can defend themselves, you essentially kill these majestic beasts because you were told to do so, with little if anything else to go on. These game-playing segments could have used a simple and generic game that perhaps left little room for critical analysis, and as this excellent Kotaku article shows, they very nearly did. Instead, these scenes that barely even focus on the “real” world in the sense of the film become some of the most taut moments in its whole story. By the way, this game came out in late 2005, so Charlie Fineman would have taken at least four years to work through his grief, even if he had magically managed to do so in time for the game’s original release.
Moving on from that, Alan Johnson’s flirtatious patient apologizes for her earlier actions but still wants to flirt and eventually to perform oral sex on him, which is mentioned in strong terms. Visibly upset, he kicks her out of his dental office, and she speaks of having an “odd sense of intimacy” toward him without knowing why. It’s a wonder these scenes don’t ruin the movie, but her unwarranted behavior does give Fineman and Johnson a reason to form a bond, at least when they don’t end up fighting each other. That being stated, Donna Remar’s background feels like one of the few in this movie that actually focuses more on a slow yet terrible degradation of circumstances as opposed to random and unexpected disaster.
Most of the sexual references and talk in the movie don’t make a whole lot of sense except in Charlie’s case: though he makes perverse jokes about numerous women, he doesn’t seem to have a visible outlet for his desires, never mind one that actively benefits anyone other than him. He’s possibly “frustrated” at having no one to come home to, which in principle he brings up late in the film. Even this doesn’t give reason for his and others’ use of anti-gay slurs as insults–in public–in New York–and all of this just comes across as being needlessly divisive in a film one might reasonably expect to want to unite its audience.
The two male leads eventually play-fight in good spirits over their taste in music. Charlie loves Bruce Springsteen, for example, but has a mind-boggling knowledge of the medium. At times, however, these lighthearted moments are overshadowed by an excess of drama: Alan has to deal both with Charlie’s occasional but severe paranoia and with further aggravation from Remar, none of which do any favors for Fineman’s personal needs. Some of these issues feel relevant to the story, particularly the ones dealing in some way with Charlie’s inability to overcome his state alone. Others, like a ridiculous dispute between Alan and his wife thanks to his ongoing communication issues, feel less like contributions to the film’s subject matter and more like problems that are simply thrown in so they can be solved, even if the movie’s ending does leave some questions open.
Where the heart is
Two observations stick out for me at this point. The first is that this movie could have been done with any tragedy. The 11 September references are usually subtle, and the grief that Charlie Fineman slowly but surely comes to openly express has nothing to do with a nationwide sense of loss–which isn’t really brought up–and much more to do with his own personal mourning. There are no “9/11 families” support groups on display, and one scene that feels like it could have given one character a small taste of another’s profound experiences becomes underutilized.
The second is that the movie’s definition of “family” comes across as slightly odd. Charlie’s in-laws, as characters, are not nearly as interesting and multilayered as he is, and his interactions with them are not enjoyable to watch as they continually try to push themselves into his life when he wants to be left either alone or with people he deeply trusts. There are brief glimpses into the unreliability of power as the in-laws are given input into decisions made on Charlie’s behalf but are unable to force him to do much of anything. Fineman spends a lot of his time with the Johnsons and especially with Alan, so much so that this almost begins to look like the inverse of one of those films where a black character is trained for greatness by a white family, but the story pushes Charlie’s in-laws on him almost as much as they themselves do.
In one of the movie’s most disturbing and unnecessary scenes, Charlie shows up at Alan’s office and is freely let into a room with an unconscious patient. There’s a ‘joke’ about Alan’s assistant being foreign and incapable of English, but it’s a lie, and Charlie, an individual with a tendency to become hostile and violent at a moment’s notice, doesn’t actually have the privacy he thinks he does. The movie thankfully tries to wash itself of this direction: as therapist Angela Oakhurst (above), Liv Tyler plays one of the calmest, kindest characters in the whole film and is probably one of the best things about it.
Along with Alan, Charlie goes to visit Angela on his own terms, and her room is as pretty as she is. She speaks of having lots of experience with loss and grief counseling, and the men talk among themselves about her breasts. Their attempts to hide this from her are singularly the funniest thing in a movie that otherwise veers between being sedate and melodramatic. Angela is consistently polite to Charlie and the other characters, but the movie at times repays her by making her the butt of jokes, including one particularly odd moment with an unwarranted lesbian subtext that isn’t even her fault. Fineman talks absently to her about his hobbies–movies, music, drum playing, “Colossus”–and when he directly admits his attraction to her body, she handles this very professionally. She does eventually try to motivate Charlie to openly discuss his life and family so he doesn’t waste her time and his by showing up at her sessions without much of anything to say.
When he finally does, however, Sandler’s unknown-to-me acting abilities really show through, especially when the somewhat graphic descriptions of his loved ones’ fates begin appearing. Of the film’s depictions of raw emotion, these are much more welcome than Fineman randomly lashing out at whoever or whatever is around him, no matter how understandable the reason. At one point Charlie glimpses an old-fashioned romance movie and becomes deeply upset over what he sees, in a much darker version of a scene the next year’s Wall-E would use as a character motivator.
At this point late in the story, I’m reminded of two films in particular, Silver Linings Playbook and The Artist. Reign Over Me seems to stick to its mental-wellness setup in a way the former did not, as well as making extended use of an admittedly cheap appeal for drama in a way that the latter did not.
Discussions among a variety of characters of what to do about Charlie remind me somewhat of Big Daddy but come across as less of a blatant appeal to the hero’s wishes than that film did. It almost does the reverse and makes him more of an object than an agent of his own story. Fineman does stick up for one character he’d treated less than ideally, making for a somewhat refreshing sight, and while the movie’s intent behind another character’s interactions with Charlie becomes a little too obvious, this doesn’t feel blatant for most of the film. He himself doesn’t significantly develop throughout the movie, but this is one of the few cases where I think that’s justifiable–some people need time. They can’t stay insulated forever, but they also can’t necessarily be rushed.
The film intentionally ends without answering all of its questions, but at least for the time being, Charlie seems to be well off and to know that he is loved and cared for. He shows himself to be capable of making some basic decisions and of interacting with certain special people, at the very least on his terms. A number of the background-music interludes feel unwelcome, but the piano score running throughout the film is subtle and wonderful. Minus a strange sense of humor that avoids the subject of terrorism but insults other individuals and groups at will, the movie gives the impression of at least trying to pay its context and setting respect, not feeling anywhere near as exploitative as it could have. For better or worse, the movie doesn’t bother to explain its Shadow of the Colossus metaphors, so analytical skill and research of the film’s production can be valuable. That being stated, its depictions of a video game are among the most respectful I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Conclusion: Beautifully ugly
September 11, 2001 is not a day America will soon forget. It and its aftermath have paved the way for hope, fear, love, anger, depression, joy, division, and unity alike, and films using it as a backdrop can vary in demeanor as much as can ideas of how the day and the events that led to and from it ought to be treated. Consider Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which felt sweet but rather simplistic. Then consider United 93, a powerful movie that is also horrifically brutal to watch. Reign Over Me did not need to mention these attacks but also did not particularly waste them. This is a small-scale movie where victory and heartbreak are unpredictable and often connected. The movie’s distractions with far too many disagreements and squabbles come across as an unintended critique both of itself and of American culture, but the production knows on some level that it should be working toward unity.
In America, this is National Suicide Prevention Week. Yesterday was the central day, and if you or someone you love will need someone to talk to, people are available. Reign Over Me’s execution doesn’t always meet its aim, but it is deeply aware of how its broken people need love. When I first played Shadow of the Colossus years ago, long before this movie came out, my initial impressions were of a gorgeous world containing scenes filled with raw power, as well as pacing issues if one had difficulty navigating the vague setting. Either way, however, I grew to love the game and its art, minus the hardware-straining graphics that this film’s late portions show off all too well. Reign Over Me isn’t quite so polished or focused, and its pacing suffers at times as a result–but when all of its pieces come together, it becomes a film worth appreciating not for what it could have been but for what it truly is.