Alan Johnson (Cheadle), a New York dentist, runs into his college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), by chance after Fineman loses his family in the September 11 tragedy. The two re-spark their friendship, beginning a tentative journey towards recovery...
Last year saw the first major Hollywood releases to engage the tragedy of September 11, 2001. This small but touching film is, perhaps, the next step, treating that almost operatic cataclysm as background to a small personal disaster. It’s a choice that some may find distasteful, but which works well in separating the mythical status of a day that shook the world from the lasting cost incurred.
That human catastrophe is represented by Adam Sandler’s Charlie, a shambling wreck of a man who, five years after the death of his family, has withdrawn into a world of computer-game fantasies and barricaded himself in with compulsive kitchen remodelling. Much touted as the mouthy comedian’s ‘serious’ movie and a chance to prove himself as a ‘proper’ actor (everyone apparently having forgotten Punch-Drunk Love), Sandler certainly displays the tortured hair and obsessive tics of a grief-stricken depressive (or possibly Bob Dylan). Even though his temper occasionally flares, Sandler achieves the remarkable by not reminding us of the tantruming in his Happy Gilmore heyday, and even conveys a few heartbreaking moments of emotional clarity.
But his best efforts are quietly eclipsed by Don Cheadle, captivating as the old friend who tries, somewhat ineptly, to help. What’s almost unprecedented about Cheadle’s character is how unstintingly normal he is. He stresses about his colleagues, about money, about the accusation of sexual harassment made by a possibly deranged patient at his dentistry practice (Saffron Burrows, in a scene-stealing cameo). Cheadle is aided by a beautifully written script that also gives us a wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is sometimes nagging but never shrewish, and a renewed friendship with Sandler that plays like a joyous and somehow innocent return to their frat-boy past, allowing both to escape the pains and responsibilities of adult life — until, that is, life catches up.
Writer-director Mike Binder is at his best in tackling domestic discord, but he just can’t find an ending here, relying instead on a hackneyed courtroom finale. Even that has treats — especially Donald Sutherland’s dauntless, prickly judge — but it’s a superfluous exclamation point on a film that’s emphatic enough already.
Cheadles finest hour and proof that Sandler can act. Funny, sad and flawed like its characters.