Sean K. Cureton

Drama, the Comic Actor, and Adam Sandler

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on October 4, 2014 at 10:28 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Reign Over Me (2007)
Directed by Mike Binder
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Released in 2007, Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me is a post-9/11 drama centered around one of the better performances of Adam Sandler’s career, pulling on Sandler’s ability to play his characteristic brand of the now ubiquitous man-child, only here his childlike playfulness is played off as tragedy on a grand scale. As the alienated and emotionally disconnected widower Charlie Fineman, whose wife and children were killed in the tragedy that serves as the film’s thematic centerpiece, Sandler is brooding and troubled, socially awkward in a way that is reminiscent of his earlier dramatic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, only here a lot of that awkwardness is made more maudlin, with Sandler’s Fineman constantly trying to reach out to his old college roommate, played off as respectably as the film will allow by Don Cheadle, through a peculiar brand of sophomoric, fraternal humor that veers towards complete immaturity and regression of character. All of this rather overt sentimental sappiness is forgivable within the framework of the film’s plot, however, as Binder’s film is a study on post traumatic stress disorder, filled with all sorts of alienated and emotionally disconnected people whose shortcomings and temperamental inconsistencies are brought to light only through their sheer proximity to Sandler’s clownish caricature of psychological instability, making post-traumatic casualties of us all. Sandler’s performance is the real pull of the film, exhibiting his ability to emote and perform within a character who, for all his manipulative reductionism, is immediately sympathetic and worthy of our time and attention, even if the film as a whole is not. Reign Over Me is by no means a great film, at times veering into ethical irresponsibility and immoral opportunism, but its melodramatic use of Sandler’s dramatic ability is notable, making it one of the rare films to use Adam Sandler as an actor as opposed to an entity.

With two more dramatic roles on the way this fall, it becomes all the more intriguing to look back at this film, as Sandler’s capacity for portraying three dimensional characters has always been present, merely waiting to be prodded into sharper focus and attention by the right director or script. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, released five years earlier in 2002, Anderson was able to see an innate ability in Sandler for a dramatic realism that no other director had previously given the SNL alum to even make an attempt at trying to bring out or capture. In Anderson’s film, Sandler gave his fans a first glimpse into a depth of lyrical humanism within his very psyche that was intensely introspective and conflicted, to the point of outright violence, with Sandler portraying a character so asocial and mentally unstable that the jarring attraction and sympathy the viewer began to feel for the character was made all the more intimate and cinematically compelling. This particular appeal of Sandler’s dramatic ability can be seen in other subsequent films of his as well, ranging from James L. Brooks’ earnest, but emotionally flat, Spanglish in 2004, to Judd Apatow’s most personal and mature 2009 film, Funny People, with Sandler playing a darkly satirized version of himself, to great tragicomic effect. It’s no secret, then, why Binder went to Sandler to play his tortured widower, living a fractured life in the wake of a great tragedy, as Sandler’s comic sensibilities pair incredibly, near inseparably, well with inner turmoil and psychological realism.

And yet, for all of the surface level beauty and melodramatic subtlety that Sandler is able to pull off, he is never able to carry Binder’s film any farther than the script will allow, owing to the fact that Sandler, as a comic actor, is in constant need of either good direction or a particularly well scripted narrative to follow if any of his performances are going to ever truly land dramatically. Without any real sense of cinematic direction in this film, Sandler’s Fineman falters into insincere parody as the film progresses, his character made trite and two dimensional as the weakness of the film’s script begins to work at unraveling Sandler’s innate ability to emote, providing no clear target or object for Sandler to project towards. Individual shots of Sandler taken out of context from within the film are, however, contrastingly affecting, as they suggest a depth of character provided by the larger dramatic tableaux of the film’s backdrop, and it is this highly visual aspect of Sandler’s persona within the film that seems to fill in, at times, for the lack of character and story in Binder’s writing and direction. Binder’s film is not tone deaf, however, as it makes the viewer feel the isolation at the heart of Sandler’s character, but due to its lack of dramatic structure, beyond soap opera melodrama, it never feels as truly cinematic as some of its individual shots and sequences might appear at first glance. Unlike Punch-Drunk Love or Funny People, Binder never really crafts a character in Charlie Fineman for Sandler to play, in so much as he personifies a thematic mood, which, while being affecting to look at, is not cinematically interesting to watch over the course of an entire film.

If nothing else, Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me is a strong example of how not to direct a comic actor within a more dramatic piece. Adam Sandler does perfectly well at eliciting an immediate emotional response from viewers, which is why he did so well on SNL in the 1990’s, and why the low-brow, frat-boy, comedies that he produces and stars in are such cash cows within the mainstream movie going audience, their success riding on Sandler’s brash charisma and childish charm. However, when a truly talented director, with a well-written script in tow, is able to work with Sandler, his brashness can be tempered to a cool glow, allowing for his charm to come through as subtlety, imbuing his better starring turns with the sort of drama and tragedy that Binder’s film tries so hard to capture. What’s more, as is the case with Sandler, the same general argument can be made on a larger scale for many other comic actors of a similar charm and range of dramatic ability. Case in point, Jim Carrey was able to turn in the best performance of his career under the direction of Michel Gondry in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was written by the inimitable talent Charlie Kaufmann, while on the other hand giving one of his most atonally stunted and blasé performances in 2001’s The Majestic, forgettable in its direction by Frank Darabont, and deplorably written by Michael Sloane. While some comic actors seem to make the transition to dramatic roles seemingly with little effort or need for much direction, see Bill Murray, others seem to flounder and come up short when their innate talent to gain the viewer’s sympathy is never given structure by a good director or a superior script, see Chevy Chase, making the case for Adam Sandler into a timeless question: the comic performer, actor or entity?

Reign Over Me is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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