Monday, November 19, 2007

Reign Over Me: The Healing Power of Tears

I seem to be doing a lot of sobbing at the movies these days. Maybe it’s me—it’s been a rough year, and if sadness makes the heart grow tender, then a tender heart feels sadness all the more acutely (it’s a bittersweet circle). The business of living day to day tends to get in the way of processing the sorrow of being alive—who has time to get through it all?! Thank God for the movies. With all that sorrow banked up inside us, just waiting to break on through, all it takes is the right kind of shove for the flood gates to come crashing open. At least, that’s how it is for me.

I admit I am a sucker for sad movies (and sad songs, hell, sad anything); I even shed a tear at Titanic, much to my shame. But what the hell: if a little artfully (or trashily) rendered heartache allows us to tap into the all-too-real sadness locked up inside us, why not? It’s great therapy. (This is probably why I prefer to see movies alone, or at least with someone as “sensitive” as I am.) But there’s a difference between a mawkish tear sheepishly shed in response to the shameless manipulations of Hollywood, and the kind of out and out sobbing of which I am now talking.

First there was Atonement, a film that built to a crescendo of sadness and seemed to tap into a universal sorrow, a cosmic melancholy that had nothing to do, finally, with the specific story or the characters, and everything to do with a basic human regret for what might have been, and the longing for what can never be. Such regret and longing seems to be what being in love—which is the defining experience of being human—is all about, and Atonement captured something indefatigable and mysterious about the human condition. Is this why they say love hurts? Not because it goes awry (though it usually does), but because the act of loving opens us up in such a way—tenderizes us—so that everything hurts? To feel such tenderness for one’s beloved is to feel empathy for all creatures everywhere, and yes, it hurts terribly. But it’s a joyful sorrow, because we know that only through feeling such empathy are we really alive.

Into the Wild also had me blubbing almost uncontrollably by the end. I could hear people in the audience shifting in their seats and sense their resistance to the power of the movie, the awful pain of loss which it was trying to communicate, but that they’d rather rationalize away than have to experience, even in a movie. People are frightened of that kind of intensity, and they resent and reject movies that stir such deeper feelings in them. As a result, they miss out on the most valuable thing that art has to offer: true catharsis. Me, I love it. What could be better than working through one’s grief and sadness in the safety and comfort of a movie experience—weeping not for one’s own losses but for those of other people—people who (some of the time, at least, though not in the case of Into the Wild) don’t even exist? If we can come out of a movie feeling like a loved one just died or like our hearts have been torn to shreds by forces beyond our control or understanding, then we know we just saw something. We have had a taste of what living is all about: intensity of feeling. (Other films that left me feeling this way: Blue Velvet, Casualties of War, A Midnight Clear, United States of Leland.)

The latest movie to do me in is not quite in this class, but it’s well worth a look. It’s called Reign Over Me, with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle, two wonderful actors who do some terrific work here. Sandler is especially good, as Charlie Fineman, a father and husband whose family is killed in a plane crash on 9/11, and who retreats into a foggy fantasy world, safe from the reach of other people and from his own unbearable grief, until Cheadle comes along and draws him back to reality. This is basically the same or similar story to The Fisher King, but Reign Over Me is not a fantastic or mythical tale, it’s a more straightforward drama, and I had my doubts about the film before seeing it. It’s written and directed by Mike Binder, who did The Upside of Anger, an enjoyable and intelligent film (Binder’s an actor also and he has a role in Reign as Charlie’s obnoxious lawyer). Using a personal 9/11 tragedy sounded like a dangerously sentimental and earnest departure point for a movie, and I was expecting the kind of “healing” feel-good fluff that Hollywood does so poorly. But Reign Over Me is a wonderful movie, unpretentious and not in the least bit pious. It’s light on its feet but it packs a real wallop. Admittedly, it sticks fairly close to a feel-good formula and it’s a very slick package, all told, so you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as just another Hollywood product. Binder’s film doesn’t take any major risks; it’s the kind of film you could take your grandparents to—a film for everyone—not something that can ever be said about a genuine work of art. But if it’s not a work of art, it’s a beautifully rendered tale with a smart, heartfelt script, and whatever shortcomings the film has, Adam Sandler transcends them all. With Sandler’s remarkable performance at its center, the film has a big and tender heart, and a true sense of pathos; it may be the fullest, most satisfying depiction of grief I’ve ever seen in a movie. Reign Over Me sneaks up on you; it starts off gentle and funny and unassuming, but if you succumb to its unusual blend of sharpness and tenderness, by the end it will have rent your heart in two. Reign Over Me argues for the healing power of tears. It sure persuaded me.

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