Sunday, April 01, 2007

REVIEW: Reign Over Me

Mike Binder has been writing, directing and appearing in his own unique, personal little movies for awhile now. In fact, he was doing it before it was "cool." Only recently, following the cult-y reception for his HBO series "Mind of The Married Man" and the modest but notably warm reception to "The Upside of Anger," has he started to emerge onto the mainstream filmmaking "stage" as a name of some note. For a change, the reason for this is easily defined: His films have gotten much better, informed at both the technical and the storytelling level by wisdom that can only be learned through hard work and the living of life. His movies have gotten sharper, deeper and smarter because he has. And whatever else it may be, "Reign Over Me" as it stands could only have been made by someone who's "put in his time" to get to this point.

His films tend to share certain reccuring attributes. Primarily, Binder makes adult-targeted relationship dramas with interwoven elements of humor. His films tend to be fairly lengthy and deliberately-paced, with lots of "breathing room" and ample multitudes of characters and subplots to occupy all that space. By and large, his characters tend to be broken, fractured, disordered or otherwise flawed; and usually wearing it on their sleeves. But none of that is what genuinely distinguishes Binder from those working in similar material. Rather, it's the following key difference: His movies are seldom, if ever, primarily concerned with problem-solving.

Most films, even the really "smart" ones for "grown-ups," have the following presumed-truth at their foundation: That there is a single, recognizable, attainable "correct" ideal state to life, the universe and everything. The majority of dramas concerning people with problems hold said problems as a mere deviation from the "correct" state of things, make the correction of said problems the main thrust of the plot and conclude when all or most of said problems are "solved" and normality is restored. For the most part, this is not how Mike Binder movies work, and it's definately not how "Reign Over Me" works. His characters tend to understand (though not always right away) that there is a difference between a problem - which sometimes must be smoothed-out, managed, "lived-with" but not always "solved" because, well.. because that's life, and because our problems are a part of us - and a crisis - which CANNOT be lived with and MUST be solved, even if it means setting the solving of smaller problems aside for a moment. In other words, at the end of a Mike Binder movie, chances are a character with a noteworthy character flaw will probably still have it.. though they've likely learned to control it, live with it or "smooth it out," which can be a little disorienting since so few dramas play out this way.

For example, in "Upside of Anger," the characters are all walking repositories of issues and problems: Joan Allen's bitter disconnect at being romantically adrift in middle-age, Kevin Costner's ambivalence at having "peaked" young and facing continued life in post-fame limbo of even-ness, the young daughters' various brushes with eating disorders, promiscuity, etc. All of those problems are still there, though smoothed-out and livable-with, at the end. It's only the crisis, in this case Allen's unrequited/self-consuming anger at her husband's supposed abandonment, that has been resolved. And thus the characters are, in a profoundly real and human way, "okay," because having problems and still being okay is what real humans do. It's what we are.

"Reign Over Me's" lead person-of-problems is Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) a New York Dentist. He runs a successful practice... but he's quiet, timid and his partners are openly disrespectful of him. He has a lovely wife (Jada Pinkett-Smith,) great kids and a fine home... but his wife is just-this-side of "controlling," and he's accutely aware that he has no real hobbies or outside life unto himself. His most notable "relationships" outside his home are with Angela (Liv Tyler) a therapist who shares his building and endures the daily sleight of not being taken seriously because she's "too young," and his patient Donna Remar (Saffron Burrows,) a divorcee so profoundly screwed-up in the self-esteem department that she turns up in his office practically begging for the opportunity to perform oral sex on him... despite the fact that she's so stunningly attractive that another character later observes "no one has the right to go around looking that good!" (seriously, take a look: )

MINOR SPOILERS (depending on which trailers you've seen) FROM HERE ON OUT

The story-proper kicks in when Alan meets up by chance with Charlie Fineman, (Adam Sandler) an old college roomate who he hasn't seen in over a decade. As far as anyone last remembered, Charlie was also a dentist and also had a comfortable wife-and-kids family situation going on... but when Alan spots him on the street he's a shaggy, unshaven, tattered mess - cruising the midnight streets on a motorized scooter, classic-rock songs blasting away on his headphones and speaking in a halted manner that suggests a form of autism.

The reason for Charlie's transformation aren't really approached as a "surprise," but have been slightly glossed-over by most of the television advertising: His wife and daughters are dead - they were passengers on the hijacked planes of September 11th. Unable to cope with the loss, Charlie has regressed to a near-catatonic state of Post Traumatic Stress Disoder, psychologically incapable of admitting that he ever had a family and prone to semi-psychotic outbursts at the suggestion. He flees in panic at the sight of his well-meaning but perhaps-misguided in-laws (Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon) and seems to have no knowledge of the fact that Sugarman, the accountant in charge of managing his considerable surivor's-relief funds (Binder,) was his best friend... up until September 10th.

He latches onto Alan's friendship as the only person who "know's him" but doesn't have any connection in memory to his lost family; while Alan latches onto Charlie for reasons both altruistic and selfish.. but also understandable: On the one hand, he senses the need and opportunity to help a friend; while on the other hand part of him clearly enjoys/envies the rules-free, quasi-adolescent existance that Charlie has created for himself in his dementia. It's important, vital in fact, that neither man is precisely "unaware" of this dynamic. Even Charlie, demonstrably, isn't in "denial" in the traditional sense: He KNOWS what the truth is, and he's slowly driving himself mad trying to force denial upon his psyche.

Alan's mid-life crisis and timidity, his wife's controlling, Charlie's possibly-permanent PTSD, the in-laws well-meant nosiness, Mrs. Remar's myriad issues and even Angela's inescapable youthfulness are the problems, and the setting of permanently-altered post-9/11 Manhattan (the film's New Yorkers never even call 9-11 by it's name, but no one ever needs to ask what is being spoken of) is as solid an indicator as any that Binder intends to let his characters once again deal-with, but not necessarily "solve" them. The crisis, on the other hand, is that Charlie is only growing more and more unstable and self-destructive. And while the film's third act between opposing forces that wish to forcibly "fix" his damaged pyshce (the in-laws) and others who want to help him find his own way "back" (Alan, Angela, Sugar and eventually even Donna) it's a point of zero-contention that something has to be done. Somehow, someone has to help him accept that he can go on living even with the knowledge of what he's lost.

Let's put it on the table right now: This is the best movie Mike Binder has made, period. It's also one of the best movies of the year, one of the best "after 9/11" dramas and contains Adam Sandler's best dramatic performance. Ever.

Binder has just-about worked out every nagging issue that had mired his previous work. The length doesn't feel too-long, the multiple characters and subplots all fit together organically (even Burrows' Remar, who at first seems so improbable that she may as well have wandered by accident from a nearby masturbatory fantasy, eventually feels real) and the melodrama/buddy-comedy mix doesn't feel an innapropriate fit. The drama works. The relationships are potent and human. The funny parts are funny, the sad parts are shattering, and even when it heads into the potentially-cliche'd realm of "Big Courtroom Scenes" or "Therapy Breakdowns" it's willing to go far enough to earn them.

See this movie. You owe it to yourself.