There really is not a single honest moment in this movie, or a single emotion that isn’t the product of manipulation and contrivance..
Did anybody sitting in the theatre for the first five or ten minutes believe, even for a split second, that Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is going to cheat on his wife? There is no way it’s going to happen in this movie, because this movie is not about what a real person in Alan Johnson’s predicament would have done–it is about what the audience thinks it would have done if it had been Alan Johnson.
In the same way, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) is not based on what a crazy man looks like or how he acts. It’s based on what the audience thinks Adam Sandler would act like if he was playing the role of a crazy man. We have Robin Williams syndrome (“The Fisher King”): make your disturbed characters lovably whacky so we can fool ourselves into thinking that we would be understanding and patient and kind if we knew someone like that. For God’s sake, open the door, it’s Adam Sandler– not some genuinely disturbed man who might actually do something disturbing!
Okay. So not everyone is annoyed with the idea that Alan Johnson hangs out with Charlie for hours and hours and, apparently, cannot imagine that it might be wise to phone his wife and let her know where he is. But then you couldn’t have the phony scene of the conflict with this wife.
Or that Dr. Oakhurst is an amazing psychiatrist who not only looks like a 19-year-old Playboy bunny, but must be the only psychiatrist in New York who doesn’t require patients to make an appointment, and who accepts referrals from dentists. Not only that, she is willing to drop everything on a moment’s notice so she can hang around with her patients during her off hours, and accompany them to court, but this remarkable PHD doesn’t seem capable of describing to a judge her qualifications.
Nor do I think the writers had the slightest clue about how the actual process of committing a patient to a psychiatric ward works.
The secondary characters in this movie are almost all mild stereo-types or one-dimensional cut-outs whose sole purpose is to validate your own saintly feelings about how understanding you are about Charlie’s mental illness. Alan Johnson’s wife– come on!– is the physically perfect wife of the actor, Will Smith: Jada Pinkett. Seriously. And Johnson’s crisis is that– get this– she doesn’t understand him. He feels constricted in his marriage. What’s so unbelievable about that?
Liv Tyler as a psychiatrist? This is one of the most astute casting choices since they made Meg Ryan a brain surgeon in “City of Angels”. You just look at Liv Tyler and think– yeah, she reminds me a lot of some psychiatrists I know.
Then you have the tiresome problem of creating dramatic tension by having Charlie resist being treated by the aforementioned saintly psychiatrist when, in real life, nobody seriously believes anyone could or should be treated if they don’t want to. In real life, Dr. Oakhurst says, ” You don’t want to talk to me? Fine. Good bye. Call me back when you do.” The movie makes a clumsy, awkward concession to reality by having Charlie say, “are we done yet” and Oakhurst replies, “if you want the session to be over, it is”, but after showing this three times, you realize that the movie is cheating. Either there is productive time in each session before Charlie wants to go, or the sessions are ridiculous. If there is productive time, then the dramatic tension is gone.
These scenes really consist of Charlie running away in the school yard yelling and giggling, “don’t chase me, don’t chase me”. It is a lot of peoples’ dearest fantasy: to be able to behave like an asshole while beautiful people chase after us begging to let us be rude to them some more.
The only teasingly bright moment in the film is when Alan Johnson realizes that the reason Charlie likes hanging around with him is because he is the only one who doesn’t remind Charlie about his loss. Then Johnson immediately sets out to make Charlie acknowledge his loss, thus draining the potential for dramatic interest in that thread.
Bottom line: yes, this film is exploitive. By choosing to contrive a story rather than explore the reality of grief and loss, it attempts to cash in without paying it’s dues.
Sandler can act– check out “Punch Drunk Love”. But not in “Reign Over Me” .
I’ve heard some people rave about Sandler’s acting in this film. With all due respect, I have no idea of what those people think good acting consists of. Sandler speaks louder and softer and louder again and softer again… and weeps. He doesn’t invent anything out of this character, doesn’t develop a rhythm or texture to him… every time he flew into a rage he conveyed, convincingly, what it would be like to see Adam Sandler imitate someone imitating a rage. There isn’t a moment in his performance that feels like it came from any particular insight into Charlie Fineman’s condition– it all feels external to me.
There are movies that do do a better job of dramatizing emotional disturbances than this one: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, for example. Mike Leigh’s “Naked”.
There are even more films that are equally bad or worse: “Prince of Tides”.
Films (good and bad) designed to make you feel good about your encounter with emotional (or mental) disturbance:
“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”,
“I am Sam”,
“Beautiful Mind” (supposedly a true story: they left out all of the disagreeable characteristics of John Nash, including his first marriage, and his divorce).
“Prince of Tides”,
“The Departed” (the same bullshit trope about a psychiatrist begging the adorable patient to accept treatment while the patient resists).
Get off my case.
Some people seem upset when I point out to them that it is a kind of phoniness that Alan Johnson doesn’t cheat on his wife in this movie. The fact that a lot of fans of the film resent my view on this tells me that I’m right.
Why, really, are they upset? Because they think I mean he should cheat on his wife in the movie. No, I don’t care what he does in the movie as long as it’s believable. As long as, given the reality constructed by the film, it is something that tells us something about the character in the film, not the audience.
Let me illustrate what I mean: you could make a movie (like “Forrest Gump”) about a soldier who engages in numerous battles and sees numerous atrocities and rescues his friends and saves a baby from a wild dingo and never actually fires his weapon at anybody, to allow your audience the illusion that someone could serve “honorably” in Viet Nam by pretending that they didn’t go there to actually kill anybody, drop bombs, or even fire their weapons. It caters to human vanity, to allow the viewer to enjoy two contradictory ideas simultaneously: that serving in the military is patriotic and honorable; that soldiers don’t kill anybody or blow anything up.
The film-makers want to titillate the viewer with the possibility that Johnson would cheat, while providing the cheap moral comfort of the idea that he didn’t, so you don’t have to feel bad about liking him.
The Alan Johnsons of real life, given the circumstances offered in the movie, do cheat. But we prefer our fairy tales. [added April 2008]
It should tell you a lot about this movie that Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were both considered for the role of Charlie Fineman. Come on— do you really think anyone serious about dramatizing an emotional breakdown would consider Cruise or Pitt for the role? Okay– maybe Pitt.
Nobody here is interested in someone who can really act or can be convincing as an emotionally disturbed man, like, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger. What the producers wanted is someone the audience would love, because otherwise they would understand immediately how preposterous the storyline is. If you are not rooting for Adam Sandler (or Pitt or Cruise) because he is a charismatic star, you would never believe the behaviour of the psychiatrist, or the judge, or the cops, or even Alan Johnson, or Johnson’s kids, or his wife. That’s because what you are really watching is a projection of your own self-image: you feel like you are a good person who feels compassion for disturbed individuals, because you feel affection for Sandler.
Although… maybe you don’t..
It also tells you something that the music that Charlie listens to obsessively is Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and The Who, rather than, say Tom Waits, or Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, or someone genuinely edgy. It tells you that someone is playing it safe– Springsteen, for example, is critically respectable, but not as original or interesting as Tom Waits. So the movie is not cheap, tacky Hollywood, but Binder doesn’t quite really want to do anything quite really daring.
One of Binder’s previous films, “The Upside of Anger”, featured an ending that was so ridiculously preposterous, it completely destroyed all of the dramatic tension built up by what was, until then, a fairly satisfactory narrative. Here, he doesn’t even get that far, the ending is almost equally preposterous and unsatisfying.
Spoiler: in “The Upside of Anger”, a woman’s husband disappears one day. She assumes he left her for his secretary and becomes bitter and disillusioned. She takes up a relationship with washed-up baseball star Kevin Costner; they have a crisis or two, save the family and…then they find her husband’s body in a pit behind the house. You realize that one day the man disappeared, and she never took the slightest steps to find out what happened to him. She just assumed he ran out on her. Without any possessions, of course. Without any evident planning or foresight. And she never called the police, and they never conducted even the most rudimentary investigation which would have revealed that his disappearance almost certainly was not planned or premeditated, and so on and so on…
And you are asked to believe that when he didn’t return to the house one day, it never occurred to his wife to take any action whatsoever to find out what happened to him. Binder didn’t think audiences would have too much trouble with this…