I don't feel niceness from you
By all appearances, Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock) is a happy drunk. In the first few minutes of 28 Days, you see her partying intensively at a standard-looking movie-bar (dark with neon), having blurry sex with her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West), waking the next morning late for her sister Lilly’s (Elizabeth Perkins) wedding, downing a quick beer while galumphing down the street in her pink bridesmaid’s gown and matching pumps, hailing a taxi. At the reception, she and Jasper dance up a storm, to the point that Gwen spins off into the multi-tiered wedding cake. Trying to make amends, Gwen steals Lilly’s “Just Married” limo to seek out a bakery. And then, after some standard weaving point-of-view imagery, she plows the car into a house. Oops.
The pleasure Gwen takes in all this chaos not to mention Bullock’s signature sunniness makes this introductory sequence look like the opening to a broad Farrelly brothers-style comedy. But it’s not long before Betty Thomas’s movie takes another turn, a bid for the seriousness that would indeed seem warranted by its subject matter: an alcoholic hitting bottom and making her way back. You might imagine that the tension between this theme and the film’s hijinksy tone might yield provocative or entertaining results. But the script by Susannah Grant (who also wrote the unexceptional Erin Brockovich) and Thomas’s direction make for a road-to-recovery story that’s more formulaic than observant or amusing. This isn’t to say that Bullock isn’t engaging she’s spunky as she’s ever been and less annoying than she was in Forces of Nature but her performance is consigned to a most predictable route.
This route begins when, after the accident, Gwen is sent to a cushy rehab center in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, appropriately named Serenity Glen. There she meets an eclectic group of fellow lawbreakers, including her wise counselor Cornell (Steve Buscemi), tragically alienated teen roommate Andrea (Azura Skye), junkie doctor Daniel (Reni Santoni, and where has he been?), gay German stripper Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk), Southernish maternal figure Bobbie Jean (Diane Ladd, who should have a trademark out on this character), angry and neglectful mom Roshanda (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and, to be topical, a celebrity athlete, a ladies’ man and pitcher named Eddie Boone (Viggo Mortensen). From each, Gwen learns some valuable lesson say, ask for help when you need it, don’t hurt people on purpose, tv soap operas are effective therapy after a couple of group sessions where the primary point/joke seems to be to use “feeling words” to describe your responses to what someone else says.
The one exception to all this glibness is Roshanda’s three-minute confrontation with her two children, played out in front of her fellow rehabbers, a poignant scene that seems to come out of nowhere. And it’s this scene that suggests that the movie once had another agenda in mind, in addition to or instead of the sparkly silliness it’s mired in here. Certainly, 28 Days has behind it a well-known lineage of rehab movies, which are, on the whole, a dreary lot, focused on harrowing DTs, lonely nights, and frightful, hallucinatory point-of-view effects. In The Days of Wine and Roses, The Lost Weekend, or I’ll Cry Tomorrow, protagonists didn’t so much rehabilitate as they did free fall into horrific abysses of self. Even Linda Blair’s tv movie Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic was occasionally hard to watch, and on purpose. In more recent flicks, like When a Man Loves a Woman or Clean and Sober, actors known for their comic work Meg Ryan and Michael Keaton used substance abuse and rehab as a means to show off their dramatic chops. 28 Days doesn’t stretch anyone involved: the point appears to be to make all performers likeable and all the characters’s situations look fixable.
It makes sense, of course, that rehab is now reconceived as a friendly, relatively unstressful, comic, and ultimately celebratory experience. In so-called real life, rehab is where famous people go to “get straight,” or more precisely, to recover their earning potential. And surely, people like Betty Ford, Liza Minnelli, Scott Wieland, Rick James, and Linda Blair don’t sweat and puke and assault their caretakers except in the most benign of ways. Rehab is a regular rite of passage (and drug abuse and/or rehab onscreen may be a career high point, as Ewan MacGregor, Chloe Webb, or Kelly Lynch might attest). All of which means that 28 Days might have been a film of its time, a little giggly or disheveled maybe, but acknowledging and even assessing its cultural context.
28 Days doesn’t do this.
Instead of delineating systemic problems, the film offers simplistic prescriptions about individual behaviors and morals. The issues it raises cutting, suicide, co-dependency, child neglect, abandonment are reduced to punchlines, comic or tragic. Then again, it’s hard to make a clear critique when your heroine’s role is so schizzy. On one hand, she’s the film’s moral center; that is, her initial (comic) cynicism gives way to a rediscovered goodness: she takes care of Andrea, she rejects the temptation embodied by Jasper, she learns from her sister that, contrary to Lilly’s angry first pronouncement at her wedding (“You make it impossible to love you”), she indeed, as Lilly confesses at film’s end makes “it impossible not to love” her. Awww. But on another hand, Gwen is the film’s outsider. So, she can make righteous and derisive fun of twelve-stepping, “feeling words,” Andrea’s favorite soap opera, Eddie’s womanizing. As an outsider, Gwen also gives you a place from which you might “comfortably” empathize or even identify with a situation, but you don’t have to commit to a character who is a) a self-destructive, lifelong addict or b) responsible for his or her own circumstances.
The film is relatively cagey about the former issue, completely clunky about the latter. Gwen’s status as outsider is initially part of the formula: new kid is resentful and in denial, veterans have to show her the ropes. So, when Cornell informs her that she has a “problem,” she insists she can stop any time… until, following a predictable mini-disaster, she realizes that she can’t and comes begging for forgiveness and a second chance. In group, she’s angry and aggressive, sometimes acerbic but mostly just mean, until Roshanda (the question bears repeating: why is it always left to the black character to point out the white one’s sense of privilege?) challenges Gwen’s self-absorption and presumption, telling her, “I’m not even sure you have niceness. I don’t feel niceness from you.” Whoa. Called out and taken aback, white girl shapes up.
On the second point, 28 Days is even more painfully contrived: almost as soon as the film begins, Gwen has flashbacks to her childhood, showing the two young sisters negotiating their alcoholic mother’s frightening behaviors and exhortations that they these cute little daughters looking slightly afraid and slightly amused by mom’s tricks must always “have fun!” Mom passes out, mom falls down, mom takes them sledding into traffic. These images offer convenient explanations for Lilly’s lifelong search for safety (with her dull-looking husband, house in the burbs, and dinner parties) as well as Gwen’s own lifelong search for “fun.” That Gwen must learn the cost of fun and the respectability of safety is the film’s foregone conclusion. That she does so in such a rollicking manner and with the realization that it’s “not her fault,” is just annoying one of the film’s own emblems of “fun” is a marauding “guitar guy” (Loudon Wainwright III), who roams the grounds singing ditties about junky antics.
The movie’s inability to reconcile its tonal tensions (or plot holes) comes to a couple of heads, in hard scenes involving Andrea’s self-mutilations and a predictable romantic interlude with Eddie. While Gwen’s resilience is part of the film’s point, her bouncing from allegiance to allegiance, or self-conception to self-conception, can be tiresome. One sign of her new self at Serenity Glen is a new pastime she takes up instead of drinking, she makes long, long chains out of chewing gum wrappers, like she did when she was a child. It could be a sign that she’s returning to simple pleasures (maybe), but also it’s also, less cheerfully, a sign that she’s returning to a kind of mythic childhood purity and self-serving lack of responsibility.
The movie’s promotional people apparently think this is a neat idea: at the movie website, you can click on a virtual bubblegum chain and enter your name (first names only please: this is 12-stepping territory). Once you decide to commit to the chain, you can do one of several things: 1) commemorate the sobriety of self or a friend, or 2) express your support, with a message that says a) “Keep on,” b) “One step at a time,” or c) “You can do it.” This sums up the level of analysis offered by 28 Days better than I ever could.