28 Days
directed by Betty Thomas
(Columbia TriStar, 2000)

There's nothing wrong with a movie with a message. Indeed, film can be a powerful medium for promoting a cause or exploring an issue. Unfortunately, 28 Days suffers from an identity crisis and fails to get its strong message across.

Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock) is a writer who thrives on sex, drugs and alcohol. She stumbles through life in a haze, giggling at her own pratfalls, until she strikes absolute bottom on her sister's wedding day. Embarrassment leads to mortification, minor catastrophe leads to major accident. When it's over, a bruised and bloodied Gwen is sentenced to a 28-day rehabilitation program, which she reluctantly chooses over prison.

She enters rehab with a chip on her shoulder but, through the efforts of a tough but tender-hearted counselor (Steve Buscemi) and a wacky-yet-touching gang of fellow abusers, she finds her way and emerges a new and better person.

If you think this sounds like a formula piece, you're right.

The film was deceptively marketed as a comedy, but don't be fooled. It's too serious to be truly funny, but there's too much goofiness (particularly in some of the character choices) for it to be taken very seriously, either. Is it straight or satire? It seems like director Betty Thomas couldn't make up her mind about the film and avoided the decision by striving for both; the result, alas, is that she got neither.

28 Days is predictably populated with a host of stereotypical characters, including an the incurable addict with a heart of gold (Azura Skye), a whimsical drunk (Mike O'Malley), an overly sensitive and weepy homosexual (Alan Tudyk), an unapologetic curmudgeon (Reni Santoni), an oversexed jock (Viggo Mortensen) and a jackass beau (Dominic West). We never spend enough time with any of them to develop any real understanding of their problems, so we never really care about them. It doesn't help that the film pokes fun at their problems at every opportunity.

There were also very few surprises in the story, which makes for dull storytelling. For instance, it was easy to predict early in the film who would commit suicide (and of course we knew someone would). The bitter split between Gwen and her older sister Lily (Elizabeth Perkins) was obvious, as was their tender reconciliation at the end. Will Gwen dump her boyfriend or will he be supportive during her time of crisis? There was never a doubt.

More troubling still is the message this film presents. For one thing, it seems odd that a rehab center which forbids all addictive or potentially addictive substances -- even nixing painkillers for an injured patient -- would encourage chain smoking. More importantly, the heavyhanded use of drugs and alcohol for slapstick comedy in the film conflicts rather sharply with its heavyhanded "just say no" message. The serious issues of drug and alcohol abuse are, in many ways, trivialized by this script. At the same time, prepare to come away feeling like you've been lectured at length about the woes and ills of mind-altering substances. The movie leaves no room for middle ground -- all drugs and alcohol are BAD.

It's also a little hard to swallow Bullock, the epitome of the wholesome girl next girl, as a perpetually trashed party girl, but it's her and Buscemi's performances which make 28 Days worth watching. If the movie could have found its center as either a comedy or drama, I'd probably have enjoyed it a lot more.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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