Dir/scr: Mike Binder. US. 2007. 125 minutes.

Using the events of September 11 as a prism through which to refract one widower's swallowed anguish, writer-director Mike Binder's Reign Over Me is an astute, adult drama that grapples with issues of intervention and familial communication, and asks what is the socially acceptable shelf life of grief. A smart, thoughtful and gracefully pitched film, it's anchored by moving work from Adam Sandler, who delivers a potentially career-remaking performance.

The perceived difficulty of marketing this type of material to the fanbase of the most consistently bankable big-screen comedy star of the past decade can be found in Reign Over Me's nondescript tagline ('Let in the unexpected') and advertising campaign. Neither of Sandler's two previous stabs at mixed dramatic fare did well at the box office - 2002's Punch-Drunk Love pulled in $17.8 million domestically, and 2004's Spanglish $42.7 million - and there's not much to suggest this film will find a markedly easier road to hoe.

Sustained critical support and adult audience word-of-mouth will be key to the film's positioning, making the difference between low- to mid-level eight-figure grosses. Sandler's performance, though, is strong enough that it should certainly be remembered and short-listed next awards season, giving the movie a bonafide novelty and sheen of intrigue that will serve it well in ancillary markets.

Additionally, Reign Over Me doesn't explicitly dwell on the events of September 11; its use of them as a backdrop, if played up, could potentially benefit the film overseas, where both World Trade Center ($70 million domestically to $92 million abroad) and United 93 ($31 million domestically to $45 million abroad) saw greater returns.

Dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) has a thriving practice, a beautiful wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and family, and a wonderful home. He should be happy. Instead, though, Alan feels a bit overwhelmed by responsibility and divorced from his own inner voice, so much so that he continually accosts his therapist neighbour, Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler), on their morning walks to work, seeking advice under the guise of friendship.

Alan reconnects with a real friend in need, however, when he happens across Charlie Fineman (Sandler), his old dental-school roommate. Having lost his wife and three daughters in the events of September 11, Charlie has shut down and slipped into a bottled-up world of emotional catatonia. Hiding behind a tangled mop of hair and puttering around New York City on his scooter, Charlie finds escape in a never-ending loop of kitchen remodelling, a fantasy-based videogame and a 5,500-strong LP collection that he deems a work in progress. Unable to cope, even years on, with the harsh reality of his new life, he's withdrawn into a self-made cocoon, shutting out his in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon) and denying the very existence of his family.

At first Charlie seems not to recognise Alan either. Soon, though, their rekindled friendship becomes a sort of lifeline for each man. It's at first an agreeable diversion as much as an act of compassion for Alan, but Charlie's behaviour leaves Alan worried over his friend's mental competency and long-term ability to care for himself.

Owing to the nature of the material, Reign Over Me treads comedic territory much more lightly and with more nuance than the most of former stand-up comedian Binder's other work. Yet neither does Binder (The Upside Of Anger) yield to the maudlin possibilities of the story; laughs are wrung in bittersweet fashion from shared memories, as well as Alan's re-submergence in trivialities for which he no longer has time, like movies and music.

In Alan's delicate, stop-start attempts to broach the subject of Charlie's family - both with Charlie himself and those around him who might be able to help - Binder nails this truism: that which hurts most is buried in a manner only the aggrieved can unlock.

Only an interwoven story strand involving a new patient (Saffron Burrows) - too pat by half, and hewing to Binder's fetishistic view of women as romantically submissive - comes across as off-key. The ending, while providing a concrete resolution, also credibly imparts conflicted feelings about the best path for Charlie.

Though his ennui is perhaps a bit under-sketched, Cheadle wonderfully inhabits Alan, and his eager-to-please instincts. He also has a wonderful, delicate chemistry with Sandler, playing their fragile scenes as if he's handling a Faberge egg.

If the affected Punch-Drunk Love showcased Sandler in a more dramatic light chiefly through draining him of his irascible-clown tendencies, Reign Over Me provides Sandler with a much more deeply sketched if equally reserved character, and he responds with an absorbingly heart-rending performance. Shattered and sapped, Sandler locates the pitiable sorrow in Charlie's mental break.

Cinematographer Russ Alsobrook's work, captured on Panavision's Genesis high-definition digital video, helps create discrete moods, be they of the inviting, saturated tones of Alan's home or the cramped feel of Charlie's dimly lit apartment. Steering clear of landmark locations, Alsobrook and Binder instead evocatively highlight their characters' isolation through lonely exteriors, handheld close-ups and empty, street-level encounters.

In films such as Sideways and The Matador, composer Rolfe Kent has previously showcased his strength in crafting light, spry scores that also capture the undercurrents of melancholy and nostalgia swirling about their main characters, and his superlative, reed-infused work in Reign Over Me is no different.

Spot-on musical selections further enhance one's aural immersion; Graham Nash's 'Simple Man' opens the movie, Bruce Springsteen's 'Drive All Night' plays through Charlie's ubiquitous headphones during a therapeutic breakthrough and The Who's 'Love Reign O'er Me,' also covered by Pearl Jam over the closing credits, provides the movie with both its title and the backdrop for a great catharsis.

Production companies/backers
Columbia Pictures
Relativity Media
Madison 23 Productions
Sunlight Productions

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International sales

Jack Binder
Michael Rotenberg

Executive producers
Jack Giarraputo
Lynwood Spinks

Russ Alsobrook

Production design
Pipo Wintter

Steve Edwards
Jeremy Roush

Rolfe Kent

Main cast
Adam Sandler
Don Cheadle
Liv Tyler
Jada Pinkett Smith
Saffron Burrows
Robert Klein
Melinda Dillon
Donald Sutherland
Mike Binder
John de Lancie