REIGN OVER ME — *** — Don Cheadle, Adam Sandler, Jada Pinkett Smith; rated R (profanity, vulgarity, violence, brief sex).

Adam Sandler's name is the first to appear in the opening credits of "Reign Over Me," and in the film's advertising. That is appropriate since he is arguably the biggest name in the cast.

And "Reign" is a likable character piece that does offer the comic an opportunity to stretch his dramatic "muscles," as he did in 2002 with "Punch Drunk Love" and two years later with "Spanglish."

However, while Sandler's performance is surprisingly subdued and in keeping with the tone of the film, the real star is underappreciated character actor Don Cheadle, whose forceful performance forces Sandler to bring his A-game.

Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a New York dentist looking for some excitement in his life. His wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a stay-at-home mom caring for their daughters.

So maybe that's why Alan is so excited when he bumps into Charlie Fineman (Sandler), his former college roommate. He's also surprised to see Charlie in a semi-incoherent state. (It turns out Charlie lost his wife and three daughters in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and he's never recovered from the shock.)

Alan makes an effort to renew their friendship, but his efforts to get Charlie some counseling from a young shrink (Liv Tyler) who works in his building are not well-received.

Like other films from screenwriter/director Mike Binder ("Indian Summer," "The Upside of Anger"), this one does have its occasional clunky moments, such as a courtroom scene toward the end (although it does showcase the always terrific Donald Sutherland).

Still, it's the relationship between Alan and Charlie that makes the movie work. And much of that has to do with Cheadle, who's believable — and very likable — as the conflicted friend.

As for Sandler, his work here may not be award-worthy, but it's certainly better than many will expect.

Getting back to Sutherland, he's part of an impressive supporting cast that includes Smith, Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon, Ted Raimi and writer/director Binder.

"Reign Over Me" is rated R for strong and sexually suggestive language (profanity and crude slang terms), some brief violence (a pair of scuffles), and some brief sexual contact. Running time: 125 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com