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Identity Crisis 

Individuals seek direction in two solid efforts

An unlikely -- and superior -- companion piece to the current Chris Rock vehicle I Think I Love My Wife, writer-director Mike Binder's Reign Over Me likewise centers on a well-to-do African-American male who's bored by what he perceives as a predictable and sexless life, one that's equipped with wife and kids but, alas, no passion or purpose.

But whereas Rock's Richard Cooper sought to assuage his funk with (platonic) dalliances with a hot-to-trot temptress, Don Cheadle's Alan Johnson seeks to reconnect with his long-ago college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), hoping that having a close friend and beer buddy will allow him some measure of freedom away from his chores and responsibilities. But what Alan isn't taking into account is the fact that, five years after 9/11, Charlie is still shell-shocked by the loss of his wife and three adorable daughters, all of whom were killed on that fateful day. As long as their relationship remains on the surface, Charlie is fine, but whenever Alan attempts to help his friend, specifically by booking him session time with a psychiatrist (Liv Tyler), Charlie not only withdraws emotionally but also displays manic, even suicidal, tendencies.

Binder, whose The Upside of Anger remains one of the best recent films nobody's seen (despite its award-worthy performances by Joan Allen and Kevin Costner), takes a couple of pages from Spike Lee's playbook on how to tackle the thorny subject of 9/11. As with Lee's 25th Hour and (to a lesser extent) Inside Man, Reign Over Me is more about the recovery than the ruin -- the film doesn't beat us over the head with the Sept. 11 specter, but neither does it ever allow us to forget how that tragedy hovers around the everyday actions of New York denizens.

Cheadle provides the movie with a sturdy center around which Sandler can orbit with his character's many moods; both actors are fine, with Tyler offering able support and Donald Sutherland popping up in an amusing cameo as an impatient judge. Only a plotline involving a needy nymphomaniac (Saffron Burrows) feels superfluous. Then again, that subplot exemplifies Reign Over Me in a nutshell: messy, demanding, and insatiable in its appetite for life.

If color didn't exist, then Mira Nair would have to invent it.

The director of such glorious films as Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala locates not only the visual schemes in her material but the thematic and emotional ones as well; this in turn results in motion pictures that examine both individuals and their cultures from a variety of revealing angles.

The Namesake, an adaptation (by Nair's regular scripter Sooni Taraporevala) of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel, is her latest triumph, marred only by a frenzied last-minute attempt to pack too much story into one two-hour movie. Set over the course of several decades, the film begins with the arranged marriage of Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), who leave Calcutta for a new life in New York. Ashoke is already familiar with many Western customs, so it's Ashima who has to adapt to a new lifestyle (she's most impressed with the fact that gas is available in the United States 24 hours a day). The big shift, of course, arrives with the birth of their son, who's named after Ashoke's favorite author, Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. As Gogol (eventually played by Kal Penn) gets older, he struggles not only with his name (which he comes to loathe) but also with the differences between his parents' traditional ways and his own decidedly Yankee sensibilities.

Bollywood stars Tabu and Khan are excellent as Gogol's concerned parents, and Taraporevala is patient enough to allow their characters to build a real relationship from the ground up. The filmmakers' devotion to their shared story is so compelling, in fact, that it's disappointing when the couple starts to lose significant amounts of screen time to Gogol's odyssey of self-discovery in the second half. This isn't intended to diminish Penn's work -- on the contrary, the Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle star ably demonstrates that his dramatic chops are as finely honed as his comedic ones. But the material involving culture and generational clashes isn't nearly as fresh as the love story being related through foreign eyes -- that is, two immigrants, little more than strangers themselves, who are able to locate lake-deep reservoirs of love that allow them to grow, flourish, and then grow some more.

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