The last time I saw Adam Sandler on the silver screen, he was in the company of Christopher Walken. The two were appearing in the Capraesque comedy Click. As I watched an early scene in Sandler's new film, I had to wonder whether the actors had talked about the performance that made Walken famous - his role in The Deer Hunter as a prisoner of war so shell- shocked he doesn't recognize his best friend who arrives in Saigon to rescue him.
There's a similar scene in Reign Over Me, and Sandler is surprisingly convincing in it. An old friend played by Don Cheadle has just spotted him on a Manhattan street and rushed up to say hello. Sandler, unshaven, bedraggled and bearing an eerie resemblance to Bob Dylan, looks right through him. Cheadle persists, reminding him they were roommates at dental school for two years. He might as well be speaking Chinese.
As it happens, this is also a movie about a rescue. Sandler's character, Charlie Fineman, lost his wife and three young daughters when the plane they were on was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center on September 11. Charlie has retreated psychologically to an earlier period in his life before he met the mother of his children, and he's repressed all memory of ever having had a family.
Where he once was a practicing medical professional, he now lives off huge pay-outs from insurance companies and the government, collects vinyl from the '70s and '80s by artists such as The Pretenders, Springsteen and The Who, compulsively plays a video game called "Shadow of the Colossus," and winds his way through the city on a motorized scooter. As Alan Johnson, Cheadle makes it his mission to get him the help he needs to heal and reenter the world.
But Charlie proves remarkably resistant, given that the therapist Alan produces is played by Liv Tyler. Written and directed by Mike (The Upside of Anger) Binder, the picture is equally concerned with Johnson's state of mind and the unexpected ways his damaged pal helps him make needed repairs to his own life.
So yes, this is a Hollywood fable of friendship, and these movies have their place. The cool thing is that it's way quirkier, funnier and, at times, far more devastatingly honest than most. That Cheadle's a first-rate actor and is believable every second he's on the screen will come as a surprise to few. Sandler's performance, on the other hand, is a revelation. After you see the movie, consider that it was written for Tom Cruise and ask yourself how much of what makes it special would have made it onto the screen without Sandler's touch. I doubt we'll see a 9/11 movie with more laughs. Or one that's more heartbreaking.
Reign Over Me isn't nearly perfect. I could have lived without the awkward appropriation of the title from Quadrophenia's "Love, Reign O'er Me," the one-dimensional character of Alan's nagging wife, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, and the strained subplot: Is offering one's dentist oral sex a common response to discovering a spouse has been unfaithful? Ditto the over-the-top climactic courtroom scene. By and large, though, this is undeniably powerful, emotionally potent stuff for a buddy film.