USA, 2000. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen,
Dominic West, Diane Ladd, Elizabeth Perkins, Steve Buscemi, Alan Tudyk,
Mike O'Malley, Azura Skye, Reni Santoni, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Margo
|Grade: B-||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
ewsflash: Sandra Bullock can act. 28 Days, an engaging story about an alcoholic's road to recovery, proves it. Until now, of course, Bullock has always adhered to the Sandra Bullock persona, first introduced in her scene-stealing breakthrough performances in Demolition Man and Speed. Studios successfully cashed in on that persona in While You Were Sleeping, but even now, as an established star, Bullock continues to play the same character, role after role, film after film–a slightly flighty, endearingly kooky girl with a winning smile. She was the worst thing in A Time to Kill. Then there was Two If By Sea, The Net, Hope Floats, Practical Magic, Gun Shy... not an impressive filmography. In Forces of Nature, it looked like Bullock would finally play someone different, a bad girl with an edge, but by the second hour she had returned to familiar Bullock ground. Instead of shaping her portrayals to fit into the differing contexts of each of her films, Bullock has delivered the same lightly humorous, sitcom-y performance over and over.
All that changes in 28 Days. Bullock downplays her trademark mannerisms–her nervous gesturing, her tendency to stammer–and allows her character to take precedence. Demonstrating unusual generosity, Bullock allows other actors to do the scene-stealing rather than trying to do it herself, and instead achieves something much more difficult. She provides the emotional and eventually sympathetic center for a film that would be lost without one. As you might expect given its addiction-recovery theme, 28 Days is not a plot driven movie; rather it is a story about self-discovery told through a series of incidents and interactions. Without Bullock as the foundation, those incidents and interactions wouldn't build to anything.
The story is straightforward: Bullock plays Gwen Cummings, a woman who drinks too much. One fateful day, she and party-boy boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West, A Midsummer Night's Dream) show up drunk at Gwen's sister's wedding and accidentally destroy the wedding cake. Promising to replace it, Gwen takes off in her sister's limo to look for a bakery and instead finds herself parked in somebody's living room. All of this is a prelude to Gwen entering an addiction recovery facility, which turns out to be a home to a bunch of needy patients with a proclivity to chanting and singing "Lean on Me" off-key. Of course, she's determined to count out the days and leave as quickly as possible without letting the center's therapists and patients get to her, and, of course, they get to her anyway.
The plot is a given, but there are a couple surprises nonetheless. Steve Buscemi, who has a small part as Gwen's counselor, is unusually and effectively reserved. Jasper, the enabling boyfriend, is thoughtfully written. He is not just a one-dimensional churl. He is churlish, but he is also a man with considerable charm, and eventually, he even makes an effort to meet Gwen halfway. Thus, resuming life with Jasper is a believable temptation to Gwen, which adds complexity to the film.
Most important, writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Ever After, which also provided roles for their lead actresses to show uncharacteristic depth) and director Betty Thomas (Private Parts, The Brady Bunch Movie) follow one of the golden rules of storytelling: make your points by being specific, and don't paint with too broad a brush. They generally refrain from the often tiresome verbal lecturing that can be common in movies about addiction, preferring instead to show the evils of substance abuse and benefits of recovery through character development. The few times they do put lectures into the mouths of their characters, they are not heavy handed. In one elegantly-written scene, baseball player and recovering addict Eddie Boone (Viggo Mortensen, A Perfect Murder), teaches Gwen how to throw a baseball properly, and the lesson becomes a metaphor for sober living.
Despite the serious subject matter, 28 Days keeps things fairly light–perhaps too light. Sometimes there is more comic relief than drama, but when the comic relief is as funny as the impossibly ludicrous soap opera the patients love to watch, how can you complain? Then there is the remarkable Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk)–remarkable in the sense that he is a cultural stereotype that is actually fresh and funny without being offensive. Instead of being an anal-retentive goose-stepper or a supercilious, industrial music-listening intellectual clothed in black, recovering addict Gerhardt is a goofy, dweeby German who appears to be a composite of the most eccentric traits of all the German-speaking students I've gone to school with and tourists I've bumped into over the past ten years. Wearing knee-length shorts, bizarre T-shirts, and Elvis Costello glasses, the wild-haired Gerhardt cries, stammers, and talks about his package, all to superb comic effect.
28 Days may not appeal to people who are not in addiction recovery themselves, or close to somebody who is, and the exaggerated "Look at the big bad drunk!" opening sequence will likely put them further off. But those who stick with 28 Days may find themselves unexpectedly drawn in. People who do have experience with addiction may observe that the rehabilitation center is too lax, and Gwen's recovery too easy, but these defects are not central to the film, which is really not a how-to manual on addiction recovery, but more an exploration of the psyche of the addict and how addiction affects human relationships.