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Reign Over Me: Punch-drunk life 

Adam Sandler gets serious for 9/11

Immaturity has been good to Adam Sandler. In hit comedies such as Billy Madison and The Waterboy, the former "Saturday Night Live" sketch artist usually plays overgrown kids running amok among ordinary adults. In his new drama Reign Over Me, Sandler plays a man whose arrested development stems from a tragic source instead of a comedic one. Sandler's Charlie Fineman was a successful New York dentist until his family died Sept. 11, 2001.

His grief has so traumatized him that Charlie suppresses all memories of his family through riding a motorized scooter, listening to his favorite music on headphones and immersing himself in other obsessions. Like Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler's previous bid for big-screen respectability, Reign Over Me suffers from serious flaws, but also proves Sandler can be a more interesting actor in a dramatic mode than a humorous one.

Unlike many funnymen who try to play it straight, Sandler can achieve a stillness on camera, as opposed to a stiffness, and can tease out his silences until we're intrigued by what's going on in his head. Perhaps he doesn't act much with his eyes, but in Reign Over Me, that suits his closed-off character. With his shaggy hair, stubbly chin and drawn features, Charlie looks a little like Bob Dylan.

We see Charlie through the eyes of another emotionally remote man, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) a dentist and family man who roomed with Charlie at college. Alan manages to renew their friendship – and find a break from his life's pressures – despite Charlie's reclusive ways and unstable mental state. Reign Over Me's writer/director, Mike Binder, relies on the clichéd idea of the "crazy" friend teaching the "normal" one how to appreciate life, although Cheadle's focus and subtlety go a long way to help us empathize with Alan.

In writing Reign Over Me, Binder seems to have thought through his narrative ideas more carefully than in his previous film, The Upside of Anger, and frequently the characters and performers turn out to be more complex than you expect. A major exception is a weird subplot about a disturbed beauty (Saffron Burrows) who becomes obsessed with Alan yet gets shrugged off in a way that trivializes mental illness.

Reign Over Me generally strives for a deliberate pace and soft tone, which makes its portentous use of pop music feel especially heavy-handed. The friends share the scooter to the Pretenders' "Stop Your Sobbing," Charlie delivers the inevitable, tearful speech with Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night" playing at the edge of audibility underneath, and he even sings a bit of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" while being dragged from a courtroom. The shots of characters riding the scooter through New York convey a certain freedom, but look more like a good commercial for Federal Express or a courier service.

Occasionally Reign Over Me suggests that Charlie, as "a 9/11 widower," has a kind of celebrity, but otherwise the film avoids large statements about the meaning of Sept. 11. The film leaves room for a serious implication – perhaps the United States, like Charlie, has been focusing on trivial pursuits rather than facing the national trauma – but instead emphasizes the healing powers of friends, family and a touchy-feely conception of therapy (with Liv Tyler as a psychologist). Reign Over Me ends up being a little too comfortable and comforting given the charged themes it brings up, as if unwilling to trust Sandler or his audience with something more grown-up.

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