Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: At this point, very little of Reign Over Me’s original cultural infamy—spurred by the stupid-looking trailer—remains. Even the people in this office who’ve seen Reign Over Me didn’t remember what it was. Here’s a quick catch-up course: Adam Sandler, crying, with a mullet.
But the funny thing about Reign Over Me is that, even though it’s impossible that a trailer this hammy could possibly represent a decent movie, it got okay reviews, including a B- here at The A.V. Club. Metacritic has it at a fairly solid 61 (still in the green), while Rotten Tomatoes is at 63 percent fresh. The worst review, from Rolling Stone, says “sentimentality and exploitation with a few misguided stops at raunchy sex farce, Reign Over Me never finds a tone to suit its purpose.” Hmm, that actually sounds sort of promising.
Curiosity factor: Part of it is the reviews, certainly, though I’m definitely watching this on purpose thinking that it’s going to be more unintentionally funny than intentionally heartwarming. Lest you think I’m biased, though, I will say that I think Adam Sandler is capable of genius (Billy Madison and Punch-Drunk Love), and that I thought his prior “serious dramatic” role (in Spanglish) was actually solid. BUT—that’s a huge but—in this movie, he looks like he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew, playing some sort of mentally ill, possibly homeless guy who reconnects with his college roommate, played by Don Cheadle. I can’t guarantee that the serious parts won’t make me giggle all the way through. But maybe that’s just as well—I’ll take laughs where I can get ’em.
The viewing experience: How’s this for faint praise? Reign Over Me was fine. But considering the subject matter and the cast (and that cheesy trailer), “fine” probably counts as a triumph. These were tricky waters to navigate (and it was probably a bad idea to begin with), but writer-director Mike Binder made something passable out of it. I was hoping for “so bad it’s good” territory, but only a few scenes really served my schadenfreude.
Anyway, let me start with the movie’s hugest weakness: There is never any sense of danger. The very notion that things might end badly just isn’t there: Hearts will be warmed and lessons will be learned, and though our characters might go through some pain, they’ll surely come out better in the end. The music, the tone, and the acting choices make it clear from the outset: You might be slightly uncomfortable, but Reign Over Me will not dare to upset you, even as it deals with the aftermath of 9/11. Because we don’t go to the movies to be upset, do we? (Funny Games, Funny Games!)
So Adam Sandler is a mess. We know he’s a mess because he’s got a horrible mullet, a speech impediment, and a propensity for cruising around Manhattan on one of those Razor scooter things. (You know, like a skateboard with a stick, but this one appears to be gas- or electric-powered.) Also, he has a blank look on his face at all times. Things clearly aren’t going well.
Meanwhile, things appear to be going much better for Don Cheadle. He’s a dentist with a hot wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), beautiful kids, and an amazing Manhattan apartment. On top of that, which patient chooses to hit on him hardcore? That’s right, the leggy, impossibly gorgeous one, played by Saffron Burrows. Not some weird old NYC bag lady. Only in the movies!
So Cheadle randomly sees Sandler on the street a couple of times, and finally stops him. This is when we learn precisely how messed-up Sandler is supposed to be. I mean, he’s still Sandler, but he doesn’t even remember his old college buddy? Acting!
Somewhere in here we’re subtly told that old movie story that’s never true: Mental illness is fun and endearing! It doesn’t smell like pee! In this universe, the pee-smell isn’t really an issue, because Sandler has a huge, relatively clean apartment, and lots of money. Because, as we learn in dribs and drabs, his wife and children were killed on 9/11. That’s right, it wasn’t just any ol’ plane crash that sent Sandler’s life (also as a successful dentist) into a tailspin. It was the plane crash.
Side note: Sandler’s landlady is very protective of him, and her name is Mrs. Modell. That’s right, no lie. It’s right there on the mailbox. (As far as I know, I have no relation to this fictional character.)
So Sandler and Cheadle start to get close, and though Sandler refuses to talk about the incident, they become friends. Thus the movie’s saggy middle portion begins. Sandler is totally lucid and fun! Sandler has a temper tantrum! Sandler has a speech impediment! Sandler acts like Billy Madison! And you know what? None of that is terribly distracting, except when Sandler decides to act mentally retarded. It makes no sense. He’s got post-traumatic stress, not mental retardation. But the back-and-forth between “normal” and “lashing out” goes on forever. Here’s a lash-out:
As for Cheadle, his wife and partners constantly talk down to him. He’s subjected to a sexual-harassment lawsuit from the sexy patient after she asks to blow him and he turns her down. Is it possible that he’ll learn to assert himself more, and help an old friend in the process? (Yes.)
Other things I haven’t mentioned: Liv Tyler is a sexy psychiatrist who works in the same building as Cheadle. Sandler’s in-laws want to have a relationship with him—or they want to have him committed. (It’s tough to tell which.) Sandler is obsessed with records, and very specific references are shoehorned in, like “Quadrophenia changed my life!” (Sandler and Natalie Portman would make a killer movie couple, come to think of it. They could remake the untouchably awful The Other Sister.)
Cheadle makes it his mission to help Sandler, much to his wife’s chagrin. He sneakily gets John de Lancie, a.k.a. Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, to give Sandler some lunchtime therapy, but Sandler is way too lucid for that. In this particularly over-the-top scene, he gives Q the Seger test, which is obviously more powerful than any psychological test. He also threatens to kick Q’s ass.
But then, in a typically Sandlerian move, he changes his mind (on a dime! After years!) and decides he does want some help. Cheadle takes him to see Tyler, but forgets to tell him that she isn’t just a shrink, she’s also a total babe. The most honest-sounding conversation in the movie is about her tits. (Sandler and Cheadle are both pro-tits.) So Sandler starts going to Tyler for therapy, but he refuses to talk about his dead family. Instead, he puts on his headphones and pointedly listens to “Love Reign O’er Me” by The Who. We see a close-up on his iPod, in case you didn’t catch the reference: This movie is named after a song! When she pushes him too far, he turns into Happy Gilmore.
But shortly after that, something strange happens: Sandler actually has a semi-believable breakthrough, choosing to tell the story of his family’s death to Cheadle. It’s a long tightrope of a scene, and Sandler is pretty hammy, but the writing is solid, and Sandler actually packs a pretty serious dramatic punch.
This would have been an ideal place to tie up some loose ends and just let this thing end, but the filmmakers must have realized my problem with the lack of stakes, so they tried to spice it up in the wrong way. Sandler takes to the streets with a pistol and tries to commit what they call “suicide by cop”—pointing his gun at New York officers. Unbelievably, they don’t immediately put 41 bullets into him. (They’re very nice, all things considered.) And guess what? They drop the charges against him, supposedly because “9/11 widower beaten up by cops would make for some bad headlines.” Oh well.
Then the movie takes a long, long time to wrap up. There’s a mental hospital. There’s a courtroom scene with Donald Sutherland and The Office’s B.J. Novak. Sandler freaks out when he sees a photo of his family, which Novak cruelly shoves in his face. What will help him block out the pain? How about singing along to “Love Reign O’er Me”? Fuckin’ A. Either that, or he’s doing courtroom karaoke.
And then, of course, everything is on course for happiness. There’s no happy ending, but there’s the very unrealistic expectation of happiness looming just around the corner. Sandler moves into a new apartment and makes peace with his in-laws, but continues his fascination with videogames. And is there a girlfriend on the horizon? You won’t fucking believe this, but blowjob lady—who threatened Cheadle with a sexual-harassment conviction if he wouldn’t let her suck his dick—is empathetic with Sandler, and she comes to hang out with him.
Here’s another thing you won’t believe, but hey, it isn’t an Adam Sandler movie without some blatant product placement. Man, I feel like drinking a very specific brand of root beer right now!
Roll credits, with Pearl Jam covering “Love Reign O’er Me” and Sandler fixed up in a new apartment with a successful friend, a fellatio-crazed model, a hot therapist, and all the root beer he can drink. Life ain’t so bad when your whole family is killed by terrorists after all. Also, Cheadle learns to assert himself with his wife and business partners. The things we can learn from the mentally ill…
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Tough to say, but thanks for asking. Reign Over Me has some memorable moments, but they’re few and far between. It wasn’t painfully cloying, but there was never a sense that anything really dangerous was happening, even when Sandler went out into the street with his gun. Did I just watch a lighthearted dramedy about PTSD and 9/11? I guess I did. Will I remember it next week? Probably not. Let’s say 30 minutes, or roughly 24 percent.