In the opening scene of Reign Over Me, we hear the strains of Graham Nash's Simple Man, and see a spectral figure, head encased in huge headphones, buzzing through the streets of nighttime Manhattan on a scooter that looks like a motorized skateboard. The scooterist's name is Charlie Fineman, he's played by Adam Sandler, and he's anything but simple. Like many of Sandler's characters, Charlie boils with rage beneath a placid exterior. The difference here is the source of his distress -- his wife and children were on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, and losing them has turned Charlie, once a successful dentist, into a sort of Rain Man, shut off from the world...
This is not a simple picture. It's serious, disarmingly funny at times and certainly ambitious, but it's diminished by some of the traits that have made the standard Sandler characters so popular. The film was written and directed by Mike Binder. He did The Upside of Anger, a fine comedy about female rage. This new one is a raunchy hymn to the power of friendship. It co-stars Don Cheadle as Alan Johnson, a prosperous cosmetic dentist who roomed with Charlie in college.
Fourteen years after dental school, and half a decade after 9/11, Alan happens to see Charlie scooting by, catches up with him and discovers why his old friend dropped out of sight. Alan is moved by Charlie's plight, and becomes the instrument of his renewal – his possible renewal, since Alan is only an amateur therapist treating a very hard case. And in a New York story that's Hollywood-heavy with healers and healing, one hand therapizes the other. Charlie is also the catalyst of his friend's liberation -- from Alan's own emotional obtuseness, and from the tedium of what he calls "putting phony teeth on phony people."
As the movie goes on, Charlie increasingly resembles the Sandler archetype, a sporadically angry Peter Pan who goes beyond childishness into a cloying infantilism that's only partly explained by his regression in the face of unmanageable tragedy; you wonder how he ever worked with a probe and drill.
Don Cheadle is, as always, a quietly commanding star with a quick-witted presence. Still, his character, like a lot of the movie, suffers from a case of what seems to be communicable infantilization. Alan is an educated man, but he can't seem to grasp the gravity of Charlie's condition. Neither can others around him. So the film keeps lapsing into conventional comedy (which sometimes works very well) when it isn't converting Charlie's grief and Alan's frustration into the borderline bathos of buddies who are both wounded birds. Paula Newsome is Melanie, a receptionist in Alan's office. Only she gets to play a cynic who stays deliciously cynical. Melanie's a real person with real teeth and a real bite.
Jafar Panahi's Offside, a pointed little comedy from Iran, takes on a big subject with huge zest. It's about the exclusion of Iranian women from the nation's soccer stadiums. The heroines are a group of female soccer fans who've been busted for trying to crash a World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. Most of the action takes place in a holding pen, where boobish young soldiers try to explain the logic of the sexist policy. They don't know what they're talking about, of course, but this delicately subversive film makes its subjects perfectly clear -- the stupidity of authority, and the hypocrisy of discrimination. Offside is surprisingly entertaining, and it's edifying to boot.