Screenplay : Susannah Grant
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Sandra Bullock (Gwen Cummings), Viggo Mortensen (Eddie Boone), Dominic West (Jasper), Diane Ladd (Bobbie Jean), Elizabeth Perkins (Lilly), Steve Buscemi (Cornell), Azura Skye (Andrea)
The "28 Days" of the title refers to a court-imposed sentence of time in rehab for Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock), an alcoholic, pill-popping New York writer whose life-of-the-party existence finally explodes in her face when she drunkenly ruins her sister's wedding and then drives a stolen limousine into the side of a house. It's either that or jail time.
When Gwen first arrived at the scenic, Serenity Glen rehabilitation clinic, it is obvious that she simply intends to go through the motions--sweat out the 28 days and then go back to her lifestyle--because, quite simply, she doesn't believe she has a problem and she certainly doesn't think she can identify with any of the other patients. Of course, she does have a problem, she has much in common with the other patients, and the film's predictable trajectory traces her eventual path to those realizations and what she does about them.
The film, written by Susannah Grant, who also wrote "Erin Brockovich," and directed by Betty Thomas, who humanized Howard Stern in "Private Parts" (1997), has a somewhat strange, unwieldy quality because it never settles on a consistent tone. This is, after all, made-for-TV material, so it becomes clear early on that it can't all be played straight; otherwise, it would simply turn into weepy melodrama about substance abuse with a heavy moral at the end. On the other hand, the seriousness of the subject matter does demand a certain amount of somber attention, so it can't be played as a complete comedy, either.
So, what results is a semi-comedic, semi-serious treatment of institutional rehabilitation that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. If and when it does work, it because Thomas creates an environment populated by believable characters. All of Gwen's fellow patients are unique and somewhat exaggerated, but they all show human qualities and foibles that bring them down to earth. While some characters are included strictly as comedy relief (especially the gay dancer Gerhardt, played by Alan Tudyk, whose bizarre accent makes him a vocal dead ringer for Heimlich, the comedic caterpillar from "A Bug's Life"), other characters have a certain element of truth about them. Perhaps most touching is Gwen's roommate, Andrea (Azura Skye), a 17-year-old heroin addict who has already been in and out of rehab for several years.
The environment itself is also treated both seriously and humorously. There are running jokes about how the patients all stand in circles and sing songs (which, to a big-city New York girl like Gwen, is simply intolerable until she learns about things like group solidarity) and announcers on the intercom system are always chirping in the background about group sessions and lectures with disconcertingly blunt, and therefore funny titles. However, at the same time, the institution itself is grounded in the presence of none other than Steve Buscemi, who normally provides comic relief in his supporting roles (see "Armageddon" or "The Wedding Singer"). Here, he plays Cordell, Gwen's counselor, as an ex-addict whose weary eyes have seen every addiction known to man and whose tired ears have heard every excuse in the book.
There is surprisingly little that happens throughout the plot of "28 Days." Rehab is depicted as a place where people sit around, talk about their feelings, sings songs, and develop a lot of new, less-harmful addictions like smoking, eating candy, and watching soap operas to replace the old, lethal addictions of alcohol, pills, and drugs. There is an effective sequence when Gwen's mature, older sister Lilly (Elizabeth Perkins) comes for a day of family therapy, which turns into a disaster because Lilly allows all of her pent-up anger toward her destructive younger sister to come pouring out, and Gwen remains in a state of denial about her actions ("I didn't say that at your wedding!").
Gwen begins a tentative relationship with Eddie Boone (Viggo Mortensen), a washed-up baseball player who is addicted to sex and drugs, but their connection never really takes hold. Gwen's relationship with her New York boyfriend, Jasper (Dominic West), is infinitely more effective because it offers a telling window into addiction, namely the potentially destructive influence of others. Jasper lives a life-of-the-party existence as well, and he is simply incapable of comprehending that Gwen could be serious about her treatment. His cynical view of life--that everything is about loss and all one can do is blunt the pain--says a great deal about why some people drink to excess on a regular basis.
"28 Days" moves along at a nice clip--it's never dull, yet it's never truly engrossing, either. Bullock provides a good center for the film even though she never truly projects the kind of pathetic desperation that generally characterizes alcoholics when they hit rock bottom. Still, her character is interesting to follow, and Thomas and Grant should be applauded for not feeling the need to tie up the end in typical Hollywood fashion. Yes, it does end on an upbeat, somewhat comedic note that certainly suggests a bright future, yet it leaves enough room for interpretation that we know each day will still be a struggle. Even though each day of rehab in "28 Days" is never portrayed as being particularly difficult, it still leaves one with the sense that every day after leaving the clinic will be.
©2000 James Kendrick