Once the towers collapsed in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, the film so cravenly dodged any commentary on 9/11 that it became more or less a trapped-in-the-well melodrama, not far removed from the TV movies that sprung up around 2002's dramatic Pennsylvania coal-miner rescue. But Stone's film looks like United 93 compared to Reign Over Me, which concerns a grief-stricken man (Adam Sandler) who lost his wife and three daughters in one of the planes that left Boston that fateful morning. For most of the film, the tragedy is acknowledged in cryptic terms, but even once 9/11 enters the conversation, the significance of the day never registers: How does losing your loved ones in a plane crash on 9/11 differ from, say, losing them to a car crash the day before? There probably are differences—not least, the constant reminders in the headlines and news segments that have followed every day since—but writer-director Mike Binder evokes them so poorly that 9/11 becomes baggage the film could do without.
And yet for all its flaws, Reign Over Me is still surprisingly affecting—a description that would also go a long way toward explaining Sandler's alternately mannered and heartbreaking performance. Looking uncannily like Bob Dylan gone to seed, Sandler plays a shabby New Yorker who has holed himself up in his apartment since his family's death, and refuses to remember anything about 9/11 or the days previous. Sandler doesn't even recognize his old dental-school buddy Don Cheadle, but Cheadle insists on rekindling their friendship anyway, partly because he wants to get away from his nagging wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) once in awhile. Cheadle gamely puts up with Sandler's eccentricities, but he eventually calls on a psychologist (Liv Tyler) to help Sandler get through what she diagnoses as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Within his shambling narrative, Binder also finds room for Saffron Burrows as a beautiful woman who threatens to sue Cheadle for refusing to allow her to administer a blowjob at his dental practice, and the craziest courtroom scene since Judge Reinhold and "the Hung Jury" on Arrested Development. At times, Sandler's man-child regresses to such a degree that it's hard to tell whether he's bereaved or mentally retarded, but just as often, his vulnerability is so plainly wrought that it's impossible not to be moved by it. Looking past the many distractions, Reign Over Me is at its heart a simple story about friendship and loss, carried over with enough genuine feeling to excuse its uncertain footing.