-The first kind pokes us in the eyes and shakes us back and forth and slaps us on the face screaming "ZOMG NINELEVEN NINELVEN!" over and over again. This is the United 93 9/11 Film.
-The second kind says, "hey...9/11..." and proceeds to be unbearably schmaltzy, a movie-of-the-week kind of product that doesn't actually involve that day at all. This is the World Trade Center 9/11 film.
Reign Over Me, the dreary new film by Mike Bender, is mostly of the second kind: although there are nearly-constant mentions of 9/11 being whispered huskily in our ear like the Others from Lost when they were cool and not whiny suburbanites, it's pretty much a run-of-the-mill carbon copy of Rain Man. Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a man with a boring marriage and a soul-destroying position in a dentistry practice, Adam Sandler plays Charlie, Alan's college roommate whose family was "on the plane..." on 9/11 (probably American flight 11, the first plane to hit the WTC. I bring this up only because looking for that info on Wikipedia is much more interesting than talking about the movie). Charlie is now trapped in a fuguelike state where he will not permit himself to think about his family, and the emotional pressure building up in his mind has left him as little more than a mumbly man-child. This is a perfect role for Adam Sandler, n'est-ce pas?
So here's the first of the many, many problems I have with this film's emotionally puckered worldview: the only conceivable reason for Charlie's family to have died in the attacks is to make some sort of grand statement about America's psychic reaction to September 11 - "he is all of us," that sort of thing. The movie makes no such statement. The story is too specific and too personal, and besides, if there is one sterling truth about America post-9/11, it's not that we are afraid to talk about that day, it's that we can't fucking shut the fuck up about it.
So all that leaves is the story of a stunted man trying to fix a broken man and healing himself in the process. There is one and only one facet of this most hideous of all stories that you probably haven't seen before, namely that the respective functions of Cheadle and Sandler mean that this film has perhaps the first Magical Caucasian in film history.
Binder is not exactly a terrible writer - I've seen the Compleat Werkes of Leigh Whannell, I know from terrible - but he is also very blinkered about the human condition, and this is a terrible affliction for a writer with his obvious jones to write important universal stories about society. Neither Charlie nor Alan are successfully realized, by which I mean that they are collections of traits that have been put together but not animated. At no point in time do their respective characterizations rise above a catalogue of which tepid cliché of urban maledom goes with which face. The whole movies feels like a long-ass version of the theme song to The Patty Duke Show:
Where Cathy adores a minuet,Except replace "minuet" with "video games published by the studio's parent company" and "a hot dog makes her lose control" with "he hates putting veneers on his rich patients' teeth."
The Ballet Russes, and Crêpes Suzette,
Our Patty loves to rock and roll,
A hot dog makes her lose control;
What a wild duet!
As much as the male leads are cardboard standees, the women in the film come off much worse. After The Mind of the Married Man it should be no surprise that Binder has no concept of how to write women; although The Upside of Anger gave every indication that he'd figured it out, we should probably chalk that up to the undeniable skill of Joan Allen. And it's very much the case that the only female role in Reign Over Me that exudes any humanity whatsoever is also the film's finest performance, Paula Newsome (who, dear God please, has got to be headed for good things soon) as Alan's tart-tongued receptionist Melanie. Elsewhere, the cast of "women" includes a shockingly haggard Saffron Burrows as the crazy woman who stalks Alan in the hope of sucking him off; Jada Pinkett Smith in the hellishly thankless role of Alan's wife; and Liv Tyler as a psychiatrist with no personality at all. I blame none of these actresses for the failures of their characters - nobody in this film speaks or acts like a human should, and some of the other fine performers who are completely wasted include B.J. Novak (so wonderful on The Office!) and of all poor lost souls, Donald Sutherland as the worst judge in the history of New York civic jurisprudence.
So yeah, it's weak in all the normal ways. What's just as distressing (to geeks, like me) is how badly it's crafted. Binder is a distinct stylist, no doubt, but not a very clever one. The chief thing I take away from Reign Over Me as a visual affair is its incredible fixation with fade-outs and dissolves. These are tricky things to use properly, and some of the greatest directors in history did away with them entirely (Dreyer leaps to mind, as does Scorsese). Binder relies on them like a crutch, and it's terrifying to see. There are dissolves in the goddamn montages, which are the stuff of straight cuts if ever such a thing exists.
Oh, the montages, can't forget them. As the title implies, Reign Over Me likes the classic rock (for a given definition of "classic rock"), and it uses music like a club. HERE FEEL SAD IT'S SPRINGSTEEN, the movie screeches, HERE'S THE WHO. AND THE WHO AGAIN. It's pretty de rigeur in the modern independent American cinema to use pop music too much and with no subtly (hi, Wes), but Binder goes beyond the beyond. Which is, I guess, understandable, because there's far more emotion in "Love Reign O'er Me" than anywhere in the script.
And then there are the ways that the movie is merely poorly thought-out, but simply inept. Usually, no matter how terrible an idea is, at least it's executed properly, but in Reign Over Me, two technical realms stand out for their total lack of proficiency. The first is the cinematography: the film was shot on the Panasonic Genesis camera that was used in e.g. Superman Returns, where it was mostly good. Here, it is awful. The night scenes in particular are plagued by video noise that I would never have thought acceptable for a major studio release. Which is to say nothing of the extremely...unique?...focal choices made. This is bad cinematography in the film-school sense of "bad," where it's just fucking shamefully done. Realm two: the sound editing. I won't get into it (I can hear your eyes glazing over even through the internet), but it's not professional work. I could be persuaded to blame the print I watched, but it seems at least a bit unlikely.
But hell, it's not Dead Silence. I say that a lot these days, don't I?