Reign Over Me

Charlie Fineman totally shut down after his wife and kids were killed on 9/11. He now spends his days living as a hermit in his New York City apartment and playing video games nonstop. Why video games? Because it allows him to fight monsters — but the real monsters are inside him!!!!!!

Those sarcastic exclamation points are to indicate my weariness with such leaden symbolism, the likes of which “Reign Over Me” is full of. It’s a step backward for writer/director Mike Binder, whose “The Upside of Anger” had real emotions and real people. “Reign Over Me” always feels like it’s TRYING to be a Meaningful Film, rather than just BEING one. It wears its earnestness on its sleeve, hoping you’ll notice.

Charlie (Adam Sandler, doing his Bob Dylan impression) was once the college roommate of Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), who is now a successful dentist with a wife and kids. Alan hasn’t seen Charlie in years, then runs into him on the street one day, only to find that Charlie doesn’t recognize him at first. He’s blocked out nearly everything about his pre-9/11 life. It’s a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alan and Charlie start hanging out again, Charlie keen on going to all-night movie marathons and playing the drums while Alan must constantly worry about how late it is and whether he should be getting home to his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith). Charlie has enough money to live on without working, and he favors a responsibility- and problem-free existence. Alan, in one of those generic midlife crises so often seen in movies, feels stifled by his wife and likes being carefree with Charlie. But he knows Charlie can’t go on like this forever, either. He needs to get his life back in order.

The question at the heart of the film is this: Can you force someone to fix himself, or is it sometimes better to let people behave however they want, no matter how unorthodox it may be? Alan succeeds in getting Charlie to see a psychiatrist (Liv Tyler) and to open up about his painful memories, but is that a step in the right direction or the wrong one? Is there a “normal” way that people should deal with grief?

To a lot of people, with his Regular Joe appearance and lowest-common-denominator sense of humor, Adam Sandler IS normal. You watch him and think, “This guy is just like a lot of guys I know.” That savvy bit of casting helps the film more than you’d think, as it makes Charlie — an improbable character behaving in an improbable way — seem somehow ordinary. Sandler’s performance, a mix of comedy and pathos, is mature and even poignant in places, once he gets comfortable with the character’s idiosyncrasies.

Though the film has a number of laughs, it’s mostly a drama, and a contrived one at that. Real people’s problems — which the movie wants us to believe it’s addressing — are more complicated than this, with less obvious solutions. Alan and Charlie are never convincing as friends; they seem more like actors performing Public Service Announcements together, or like the pals who populate beer commercials: always jocular, but jocular in a carefully orchestrated, focus-group-pleasing way. For a film that intends to be about the messiness of life and the unusual ways a person can find happiness, it’s very clean, neat, and usual.

C+ (2 hrs., 4 min.; R, a lot of F-words, some sexual dialogue.)