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Reign Over Me ***1/2

Let’s face it: there are some things we’re convinced we’ll never say about movies. “Oscar winner Rob Schneider,” for instance. “Screen legend Paris Hilton,” for another.

Alas, one of these idiomatic truisms has abruptly fallen: Adam Sandler does indeed gives a great dramatic performance in “Reign Over Me,” and while the guy who used to talk to imaginary penguins is still there, he’s certainly come a long, long way.

Sandler is Charlie Fineman, a grief-stricken man whose wife and three daughters died on 9/11. He has distanced himself from the world so much that he has no friends and spends most of his time playing video games and redesigning his kitchen, as well as attending Mel Brooks movie marathons. He is the epitome of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and is so distraught over the loss of his family that he’s hardly functional as a human being.

As chance has it, he’s recognized on the street by Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), his roommate in college who now runs a successful dental practice. The two begin a slow and cautious friendship that grows into a symbiotic bond of dependence: Charlie needs any friend he can get, and Alan needs a break from his overbearing wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), two kids and a sultry patient (Saffron Burrows) who wants to perform fellatio on him.

Mostly a character study on the affect that rekindled friendship can have on two men, the film really belongs to Sandler, who captures our hearts and attention in a way many didn’t think possible. With his ‘60s Bob Dylan hair cut and an omnipresent defeated look in his eyes, Sandler gives a touchingly poignant performance that is by far the best of his career. In order to appreciate it, however, you have to give him a chance and take him seriously; if you can’t do that then you’re not being fair to him (or the movie) and the movie will not have its proper effect.

Note in particular the scene toward the beginning of the film in which Charlie and Alan are in a bar having a beer. When Alan brings up Charlie’s family and Charlie starts yelling, the old Sandler would have gone completely over the top and played it for laughs. But here he’s restrained, and stays in character with torment in his voice and fear in his eyes. Charlie explodes at various times throughout the movie and often for unknown reasons, but what’s consistently notable is that the scenes are played for laughs only when the situation calls for it, not because Sandler doesn’t know any better.

Cheadle is solid in what amounts to a supporting main role, and works well with Pinkett Smith to depict a loving but troubled marriage. Also appearing are Liv Tyler as a therapist and Donald Sutherland as a judge, as well as the scene-stealing Paula Newsome as Alan’s assistant, Melanie.

The film was written and directed by Mike Binder, who also co-stars as Charlie’s slimy financial advisor. Interestingly, 9/11 isn’t directly mentioned until late in the film when Charlie is called a “9/11 widower.” By keeping the 9/11 aspects to a minimum Binder allows the viewer to wholly concentrate on Charlie’s plight, and because of the depth and emotion of Sandler’s performance and Binder’s patient, methodical pacing the movie comes together incredibly well.

This is the first great drama of 2007.

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