While not a “9/11 movie ” nor attempting to be Reign Over Me sheds light on a different kind of post-September 11 rubble than what we’re used to seeing dramatized: The emotional rubble. On that fateful day Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) lost his wife and daughters--and he pretty much died also. Ever since he has shut himself out from New York City and the city from him unable to move on with his life or recall anything from 9/11 or before it. His old college roommate Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) leads a completely different life professionally and domestically but he struggles with the ennui of success at dentistry and marriage—thanks to a sex-crazed patient (Saffron Burrows) and an overbearing but well-meaning wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) respectively. After bumping into Charlie who claims not to remember him Alan strikes up a relationship with his old buddy and tries to help Charlie start anew and come to terms with the past. And while Alan pities Charlie he simultaneously envies his unparalleled freedom. Even though Reign will make a good chunk of its money on speculation tickets bought by Sandler fans it is obviously something different from what we’ve come to expect from the God of Goof. His performance is not without Sandler-isms but the overall immaturity is impressively kept in check and Sandler delivers most when his character’s emotions peak. Still it’s impossible not to wonder how much more a different actor could’ve soared in the role even if partly because Sandler’s quick-to-giggle audience precedes him. Conversely there is virtually no role unbefitting Cheadle which he further proves in Reign. It’s not gaudy like Hotel Rwanda and he’s not necessarily the lead here but Cheadle as always lends so much effortless authenticity. The formidable supporting actors all serve their purposes even if a few of their characters are somewhat dubious. In addition to Pinkett Smith and Burrows whose supermodel-like beauty is frankly a bit distracting from her character’s complexity Liv Tyler (as the shrink enlisted to help Charlie) Donald Sutherland (as a judge) writer-director Mike Binder (as Charlie’s accountant) and The Office’s B.J. Novak (as a lawyer) also co-star. In concept Reign Over Me is awfully intriguing a different take on the still-unfolding aftermath of September 11. But 9/11 no matter how scant the references remains a very slippery slope. Ultimately the only way to come to grips with writer-director Binder’s 9/11 tie-in is to concede that it makes the story more contemporary and less fictional. It’s just difficult to conclude whether it is more or less admirable to use that day as a mere backstory for a movie. But Binder’s story is certainly well intentioned and ambitious—maybe too ambitious as is often a director’s weakness. Binder (Upside of Anger) tries to cramp into his dramedy far too many elements and while never exactly a failure the result can be weird. Too many metaphors—including the title taken from the Who song that Charlie often listens to on his headphones—and character flaws—the screenplay kind not the real-life kind—send the movie up and down tonally. Binder does however paint a vastly warm luminous NYC—a character all its own rightfully so.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.