Defeating The Colossi In Adam Sandler’s ‘Reign Over Me’

Reign Over Me is a 2007 drama about a man who lost his family in a tragic accident, attempting to rekindling a friendship with his old college roommate.

Adam Sandler is a frustrating actor. Seriously. He’s made gobs of money making the most inane comedies, rehashing jokes and pushing the limits of good taste while at the same time, every so often, offering up dramatic roles that are so astonishing, you wonder who this guy is. It makes him impossible to hate. For every five Jack & Jills, you get a Punch-Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories. With Reign Over Me, Sandler once again suits up for a tearjerker and while the movie itself is a little uneven, what Sandler does is nothing short of monumental.

We follow a man named Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a successful Manhattan dentist with a thriving practice and growing family, though his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) seems to be neutering his hopes for life outside their relationship. One day, he sees an old friend, Charlie Fineman (Sandler) on the street, looking decidedly scruffy and unkempt. A few weeks later, he sees him again, and this time, manages to get his attention and start a conversation, knowing that Fineman lost his wife and daughters in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. Since that time, Charlie has fallen into unimaginable suffering, and while his lawyer (Mike Binder) keeps him in plenty of money, he’s become a shell of himself, unable to deal with the loss. Can Alan guide his old friend out of the dark?

Reign Over Me
Reign Over Me, 2007 © Relativity Media

So the story. It’s a little, well, contrived, and for some, maybe unnecessary, with the plot revolving around the September 11th terrorist attacks. I personally never felt it added anything to the film, even if, only six years after the tragedy, it was still well-embedded in the public conscious. It could have been any accident and still worked, but it is what it is, and fortunately, the movie avoids exploiting it.

Binder is the writer and director, and his story, while far too expansive, is at least well told. It packs in a lot of peripheral stuff that really burdens our commitment to Charlie’s plight, distracting us with weird bits of comedy/drama that simply don’t work. Take for instance one of Johnson’s newest patients, Donna (Saffron Burrows), a gorgeous leggy blonde who has a sexual craving for the dentist, willing to, at any moment, give him oral sex. She’s of course leveled with her own personal crisis and then wedged by unbelievable coincidence to become an interest for Charlie. It makes no sense and yanks terribly on the sturdy threads of credibility the movie has already firmly established.

There’s also Johnson’s wife, the underused and entirely wasted Pinkett Smith, who is a cardboard cutout of a pestering wife, made only for minor conflict and a manipulative emotional return. It’s too bad because there is some terrific potential there for something fresh. And then there’s Charlie’s name, ‘Fineman’ an all-too-on the nose cursory shot at his well being. Fine. Man. Get it? Sure, it’s been done before – I’m looking at you Cast Away – but talk about subtlety. Or lack thereof.

Reign Over Me
Reign Over Me, 2007 © Relativity Media

Okay, so aside from these issues, the thing about Reign Over Me is that it becomes a game of deal-with-this-so-we-can-get-to-that. “This” being all the stuff mentioned above, and more, including Johnson’s relationship with his co-workers and their bid to oust him from the practice. “That” being the magnifienct performance from Sandler, who once again redefines himself. Charlie is a mess, akin to his Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love, creating a man in desperate need of help who finds avoidance the only way to survive. To do so, he remodels this apartment over and over in hopes of shedding the memories and … he plays a video game called Shadow of the Colossus.

If you don’t know what that game is, it’s by no mere coincidence it’s in the the movie. And while most movies use gaming in rather generic ways – unless maybe you’re Edgar Wright – here it is has much greater meaning. The game centers on a boy who must defeat sixteen large creatures, called Colossi, in order to restore the life of the girl he loves. Charlie introduces the game to Alan, who doesn’t know anything about the game, telling him “It’s like another dimension. You take a journey and discover yourself.” It’s a quick line, maybe easily lost on an audience who don’t know what a powerfully personal experience the game really is. Obviously, Shadow of the Colossus becomes symbolic of Charlie’s own journey, and we catch glimpses of the shattered man battling these beasts, mirroring his own efforts to save himself.

Reign Over Me
Reign Over Me, 2007 © Relativity Media

What’s even more crucial though, and again something that might slip past those not paying attention to the importance of the relationship between these men, is that Charlie invites Alan to join him in playing the game, and in turn, his fight to find salvation. He is asking for help, even if he doesn’t know it. This is echoed later in a moment I won’t spoil here, but is easily the most impactful in the entire film, when Charlie truly faces his Colossus standing in his way.

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Reign Over Me is far more often a good film than a bad one, and even though there are a few moments that derail possible incredible moments (a scene in a dentist office builds to something with sensational potential before deflating into a goofy mess), what Sandler does truly makes it worth it. He digs deep and reveals a breathtaking rawness, almost fearless in its delivery. It’s unnervingly effective, and degrees above many he is acting with, though Cheadle does very well, too. While I’d still say Punch-Drunk Love is the best work he’s ever done on screen, I cherish the films like this where he returns to his serious side, keeping me from ever hating what he’s done with career.