The often powerful and relatable Reign Over Me is about a New York man named Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) who lost his wife and three daughters suddenly and tragically. Years later, he has yet to move on. He's stayed in the same home, quit his job and withdrawn into himself. He's shut down emotionally and socially. He won't discuss his family—or seemingly even think of them. He doesn't deal with the past; he ignores it. His life is comprised of listening to music, remodeling his kitchen (over and over), and playing a fantasy video game. He is a sad shell of who he was because of grief, clinical depression, guilt and self-punishment.
When Charlie runs into his college roommate Alan (Don Cheadle), Charlie insists he doesn't remember Alan. He holds his old friend at a distance. Alan can't believe this disconnected and distant man is his old friend. But yet, Alan can't shake the feeling that rebuilding this friendship seems to be the only thing that may help Charlie begin overcoming his grief.
Okay, that much we can tell from the commercials and trailers—but what exactly does the title "Reign Over Me" mean?
When Charlie feels threatened or must keep his mind from wandering to uncomfortable thoughts, he retreats into loud classic rock played over his headphones. One of those songs—played prominently several times in the film—is The Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me" (redone for the film's soundtrack by Pearl Jam). It's obvious that it's not just a random song placement. In fact, the song's title fills in the word missing from the film's name.
What does Charlie need to reign over him? Love.
In telling the story of Alan's steady, bold and abrasive love slowly brightening Charlie's dark world, Reign Over Me hits on poignant, profound themes that make you think. This movie will lead to great discussions. Christians will see several ideas and thoughts reflected from the Bible. And Charlie's attitudes, emotional traps and side effects of grief may remind any audience of hurting loved ones—or themselves. After the film, you may think of hurting friends you need to call. I did. You may feel the need to talk to your spouse about what you want for them if you pass on first. I did. There are just so many provocative truths.
We see an example of why God designed us for close friendships and biblical fellowship. We see why we need one other—and, sometimes, need help from trained professionals. We see the importance of communication. We see the reality of people painfully holed up in their grief. We see the need to not run from or bury past loves, losses and mistakes, but instead remember—as painful as that process may be. We see why love is selfless. And we see the reason for Paul's message in Hebrews 10:24-25: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit are doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (NIV).
At its heart, the movie is about people who have lost their bearings through tragedy, and dealing with it in unhealthy ways. It's redeeming and powerful—though uncomfortable to watch at times because it's about messy people navigating messy lives. And like in life, nothing heals quickly and easily. Instead, progress comes in fits and starts—and tends to hit rock bottom just when you think everything's getting better.
Charlie's emotional journey out of depression and self-imposed exile from the world is the star of Reign Over Me. But it's not the only strength. The film has a good tone. Director and screenwriter Mike Binder hits a feel almost like The Graduate at times, creating beautiful moments—like a long, sweeping opener of Sandler weaving through New York on his scooter—and balancing reality with subtle but frequent humor. Binder successfully works laugh-out-loud moments and fun into an otherwise heavy and poignant film. Despite Sandler's presence and some of the commercials' appearance, this is a drama first and foremost—but one that's adept at weaving in those real-life lighter moments that pop up in even the darkest times. (Another misleading aspect of the commercials is the presence of Donald Sutherland. Though featured in some trailers, Sutherland is barely in the movie.)
Sandler gives his best performance yet (at least my favorite) by creating a very real person who's screwed up—but realistically and sympathetically screwed up. In Punch Drunk Love, Sandler was successful but almost just a muted version of who he is in every movie. Here, Sandler really acts—disappearing into Charlie Fineman and only surfacing with random line readings that make you think, "Whoa, there's Happy Gilmore!" But for the most part, Sandler commands the movie with a powerfully subtle and evolving portrayal. He's matched by the always solid Cheadle, who isn't just the straight guy to Sandler's messiness—but is also a three-dimensional character on his own journey.
Unfortunately, Cheadle's own storyline—learning to accept the self-sacrifices and necessary communication of marriage—is the weak spot of Reign on Me. Instead of being solely about how friendship reawakens Charlie, screenwriter Binder seemed to want the film to be about two men with problems—one mourning his lost family and one feeling trapped in his family—and how they reawaken each other. Alan's part of that synergy doesn't quite work. It can feel tacked-on, contrived and unoriginal. Instead of feeling like real life, it's more like "reel" life—moments in Alan's storyline feel staged and manufactured. One intriguing idea in Alan's story, however, is summed up when Alan's wife says, "[Charlie] is caught up in his pain—and you're jealous of his freedom."
This is yet another example of the great thoughts and deeper ideas underlining Reign Over Me—themes very similar to The Who's similarly titled song. "Love, Reign O'er Me" was the final song on The Who's second rock opera, Quadrophenia, about a disfranchised character named Jimmy who has a personal tragedy and escapes to a small island (like Charlie's video-game, self-focused island in his apartment).
Pete Townshend of The Who described the song by saying, "Jimmy goes through a suicide crisis. When it's over and he goes back to town, he'll be going through the same [tough stuff], but now he's moved up a level. He's still weak, but there's a strength in that weakness. He's in danger of maturing."Discussion starters
- Is Charlie's reaction to personal tragedy understandable? Have you seen someone go through similar pain—or have you gone through it yourself? Could you see yourself slipping into this kind of depression? What would you do about it?
- How do you think this movie portrays marriage? Professional therapists? Mental illness?
- What specific scenes or sequences remind you of Hebrews 10:24-25? How is that verse seen in the film? What other verses popped to mind watching this movie?
- Charlie keeps remodeling his kitchen out of self-punishment. In what ways have you punished yourself—or seen others punish themselves—out of grief, guilt or loss?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Reign Over Me is rated R for language and some sexual references. The consistent offensive language includes just about every swear word in the book—including crude terms for body parts and homosexuals. The sexual references include very frank discussion of oral sex and a woman's breasts. A woman continually approaches a man for an adulterous relationship, but it is not acted upon.
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