movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


(© 2000 Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. All rights reserved.)

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28 Days

The collaboration of director Betty Thomas (Private Parts, The Brady Bunch Movie), screenwriter Susannah Grant (Ever After, Erin Brockovich) and everyone’s favorite girl-next door Sandra Bullock in a tale about rehabilitation treatment promised a very different look at addiction and recovery. Thomas described the film as a satire, a darker comedy akin to M*A*S*H: "I felt this was a difficult subject -- to use comedy and satire to reveal a personally serious experience." Dark comedies often allow an audience the emotional distance to come even closer to a horrific experience. M*A*S*H*, Catch-22, and Full Metal Jacket effectively used comedy and satire to reveal the horror and absurdity of war to a degree that more sentimental and melodramatic films could not. Thomas and Grant seemed to have the sharp comedic skills necessary to provide a revealing and intimate portrait of addicts in rehab.

Unfortunately this film owes more to Grant’s work on the television series Party of 5 than to the vibrant Erin Brockovich. Instead of a dark comedy, 28 Days is a predictable melodrama showcasing outrageous drunken behavior, quirky characters, and quirkier situations. Sandra Bullock’s Gwen Cummings keeps the film from becoming maudlin more through her character’s constant sarcasm and denial than through deft comedic direction.

Part of the problem is that the characters spend most of their time in denial -- so that little is revealed about themselves, their addiction, or their recovery. The patients all play a game when anyone new checks in, trying to guess their drug-of-choice from first impressions. Unfortunately, this movie seems to ascribe to this notion that every addict can be assigned to a particular stereotype. Alan Tudyk’s Gerhart is so cartoon-like that this character may offend gays and Germans. His rampant sexuality is judged much more severely than his straight counterparts. The press release notes the presence of two Oscar nominees in the ensemble -- Diane Ladd and Marianne Jean-Baptiste -- but places them in roles so underwritten that their talent is barely apparent. The rehab group never becomes the ensemble of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted. They remain merely a collection of strange people who happen to be in the same room, rather than strangers forced to interact. This lack of interconnection hamstrings the comic and dramatic potential of the script. When death occurs, it is a predictable plot point involving a character known only superficially.

The film opens with a night of debauchery for Gwen and her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West). Director of photography Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas) again demonstrates his ability to capture the surreal world of the intoxicated, where movement, time, gravity, sound, and colors operate under different rules than the sober universe. Gwen arrives late and unkempt to her sister’s wedding. Lily (Elizabeth Perkins) coolly pronounces: "You make it impossible to love you." Gwen then systematically destroys the wedding -- the toast, the cake, the limo -- and is sentenced to 28 days in rehab -- 28 days of singing, group therapy, and annoying rules.

Even in therapy, Gwen reveals little. She is a New York writer -- but of what? Her mother was an alcoholic, as seen in appropriately chaotic flashbacks, sometimes masterfully intercut with flashbacks of Gwen’s own binges. She makes calls to her sister -- but what has their relationship been like over the years? In casting Perkins, producer Jenno Topping commented on Perkins’ "ability to be sort of haughty and intimidating that was perfect for this role" -- and Perkins conveys Lily’s icy perfection. However, Thomas overlooked Perkins’ subtle comedic talent to make humorless characters hilarious (Big, Crazy in Alabama). Late in the film, Lily is allowed to show the softer side of her connection to her sister, and Perkins’ performance provides a tender and genuine moment.

Overall this rehab center seems more like summer camp than a place where painful exploration and therapy take place. Though Gwen changes her mind and decides to take sobriety seriously, the strength of her resolve cannot be explained by her treatment or the support of her group. Even head counselor Cornell -- more low-key than a typical Steve Buscemi character -- seems too wrapped up in his quirks and pronouncements to be trusted, neither revealing nor encouraging revelation.

Besides Gwen, baseball superstar Eddie (Viggo Mortenson) appears to be the only person capable of a conversation, the only other person not trapped in eccentricity. But as Gwen has problems differentiating between his sincere friendship and compulsively manipulative charm, so does the audience -- this tentative friendship becomes another empty relationship that is not missed when it peters out. Gwen has more of a conflict deciding what to do with her drinking partner/boyfriend Jasper, who appears devoted to her -- though devoted to a Gwen that she has decided to not be any more. Again, since the audience has so few details of this relationship, it is easy to simply accept that Jasper’s a jerk and to banish him without regret.

This film had the concept and the talent to provide an unflinching and interesting portrait of recovery, but unfortunately it remains off balance, never finding the heart or funny bone of its story.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]