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Everywhere I turn I run into an advertisement, commercial, or preview for “Reign Over Me,” the latest of a series of films related to 9/11, but decidedly unlike others released so far–like Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” and Paul Greengrass’s “United 93.” It doesn’t focus on the events of that awful day but on how two men rediscover a friendship that helps both get their lives back.

“Reign Over Me” stars Adam Sandler as Charlie Fineman, a man who lost his entire family in the tragic events of 9/11. It also stars the wonderful Don Cheadle as Alan Johnson, a dentist who has a quiet, normal life with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and kids, but who is lonely and unsatisfied despite his many riches.

One day when Alan is stuck in Manhattan traffic, he sees his college roommate Charlie shooting through the streets on a strange little scooter. He calls out to Charlier over and over again, but it seems his old friend can’t hear him.

That’s when we hear Charlie’s background story at the Johnson dinner table: Charlie’s entire family–his beautiful wife and three daughters–was on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. No one has heard from Charlie since, and no one knows how he is doing. Alan becomes determined to find out, so he tracks Charlie down one day. And so begins the movie’s story of this rather odd, redemptive friendship (on both sides) between two men who are lost–one more so than the other.

I’ve stayed away from the recent spate of 9/11 movies, because I haven’t felt ready to “go there” again. Like for so many people I know, the events are too literally close to home. But this film is truly different. There are no visions of planes crashing into the towers, allusions to the towers falling, or any visual indication of that terrible day. “Reign Over Me” is a slow, quiet film. Nothing is overly dramatized.

After the initial dinner table conversaton about Charlie’s past, all 9/11 references are dropped entirely. It doesn’t need to be mentioned again–we all feel its intensity and tragedy enough to carry it within ourselves through the rest of the story. To trust the audience this way was rather brilliant on the director’s part.

But while a lot is good in this film, (Don Cheadle–as always–is especially excellent in his role)there is an emptiness in this slow story of friendship. Are there holes in the story? Or is it simply that the viewer expects the movie to deliver an emotional payout that doesn’t quite happen? I can’t decide.

I felt my heartstrings get tugged many times–the idea for this story is vivid, powerful and possible. I couldn’t help but feel for Charlie as he tools around the city with music blasting through his headphones, spending his days at the movies or playing Shadow of the Colossus (an excellent, wildly addictive video game I happen to love)–anything to forget the pain of his family’s death and the man he was when they were alive.

Perhaps the problem is Adam Sandler. Despite his recent foray into “critically acclaimed” roles in movies like “Spanglish” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” I didn’t see “Adam Sander the actor” emerge in this film. I came away feeling like this was more the classic Adam Sandler of “The Waterboy” and “Click” in that he was the same actor who alternates between the little boy persona and the enraged, out of control man. It’s just for darker purposes instead of laughs in “Reign Over Me.”

I wonder whether audiences will feel distracted by this too. I wanted to believe he was Charlie Fineman, but I never forgot he was “Adam Sandler playing serious.” And so I never quite rose above reality of sitting in the movie theater watching actors play their parts, despite the film’s powerful premise.

“Reign Over Me” opens in theaters nationwide March 23. Watch clips from the movie here.

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