The life of the party…before she got a life.
Sandra Bullock (Speed, While You Were Sleeping, Miss Congeniality) has not always made the best choices when picking movies. She has had a tendency to accept roles in films that have been less than successful with critics and at the box office. 28 Days met with mixed critical response, and was not a huge box office success either; however, Bullock got an opportunity that she is more that just the "ersatz Julia Roberts next door" and really show some acting skills.
Facts of the Case
Gwen Cummings (Bullock) is a hard drinking, non-stop party girl. She and her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West, A Midsummer Night's Dream) live a life that blurs into a sort of perpetual grotesque Mardi Gras, constantly partying and drinking and generally living like there is no tomorrow. (Gwen, we are informed, is some sort of writer, so naturally she has time to do nothing but drink. Obviously she is not a film critic.) One bright Saturday she awakens after a night of hard drinking, only to realize that she is late for her sister's wedding—a big problem, since she is a bridesmaid. Gwen gets to the church late and disheveled. After the ceremony, she gets drunk at the reception, makes one of the more insulting toasts in wedding history, and while dancing wildly stumbles into the wedding cake and destroys it. In her impaired condition she decides that the proper way to make amends would be to find a "cake store" and replace it. In order to do so, she steals the waiting honeymoon limousine. After a short but eventful journey, she crashes the limo into the front porch of a house.
As a result of this little misadventure, Gwen is given a choice between prison or spending twenty-eight days in rehab. She arrives at Serenity Glen and is soon introduced to her relentlessly colorful fellow patients, including her teenaged, heroin-addicted roommate, Andrea (Azura Skye). Gwen is forced to endure group singing, chanting, and the joys of self-help psychobabble nonsense. Her tour guide through this wonderland of sobriety is Cornell (Steve Buscemi, Armageddon, The Wedding Singer, Reservoir Dogs), whom she meets rather awkwardly, by asking him if he knows how to get drugs smuggled in.
As the reality of her rehab experience settles in, Gwen realizes that her devil-may-care attitude is not the answer. She realizes, with a little help from her friends, that her life really does need to change. Further help comes in the form of Eddie Boone (Viggo Mortensen, A Walk on the Moon), a star baseball player who checks in to combat his alcoholism. A tentative romance begins between the two, but the real value in their relationship is what it reveals about each of them.
Gwen comes to a crisis that forces her to take her rehab seriously, and her eyes are opened to the kind of person she has been. She is forced to face her past, and even comes face to face with the sister she hurt so deeply when she was drinking. Still, her old life beckons and she feels the pressure to continue on as before, and is forced to make up her mind as to what kind of life she will have.
When reviewing a Sandra Bullock movie, there is a list of standard adjectives and phrases that critics are contractually obligated to employ. These are: likeable, eminently likeable, girl next door, perky, adorable, dependably friendly and endearing, cute, charming, and sweet. And it is true; Bullock is generally the embodiment of all those things, which is why her performance in 28 Days is such a surprise. For once we see Bullock as self-absorbed, reckless and inconsiderate, concerned only with having a good time. As the movie progresses and her character grows she gradually comes closer to the Bullock we know so well, but she has the opportunity along the way to do some of the best acting she has done to date. We see her as angry and scared and emotionally vulnerable, with a certain rawness, a certain edge that we have never seen in a Bullock performance before. It is refreshing, and will make those who like Bullock appreciate her even more.
Even more surprising is Steve Buscemi. Cornell is a far cry from the delightfully crazy characters we are used to from Buscemi. Indeed, when he first appeared on screen I was primed to laugh at his antics; however, his portrayal of Cornell is thoughtful, sincere, and just a bit world-weary. He has seen it all before, done it all himself, and has little time for Gwen's self-indulgent superiority. Buscemi's performance is probably the single most believable thing about the movie.
28 Days comes to us from Columbia/TriStar as a Special Edition. They have done a very nice job with this disc. The movie is presented in an anamorphic transfer, in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Picture quality is good, but with a few minor defects. A number of darker scenes appeared to be grainy and a bit soft, and blacks were not as solid as they might be. There was some evidence of minor edge enhancement, but it was not severe. A number of scenes in the movie were shot on extremely cheap video cameras to produce a sort of "otherworldly" effect for scenes of drunkenness; these scenes were meant to look bad, but look especially bad with the transition to DVD. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a primarily dialogue driven movie, so your full surround system is not going to get much of a workout. The audio is quite good, and is more than adequate to handle what 28 Days has to offer.
There are special features on this disc as far as the eye can see. A number of them are relatively standard fare. There is an HBO making-of special that is about fifteen minutes long. It is nice but rather short and shallow. Production notes are included, as are a small section of talent files and a theatrical trailer. As an added bonus, there is a trailer for Big Daddy; the only connection between that and 28 Days is Buscemi. There is also an isolated music track, which is a nice touch.
There are a number of features included that are more specific to this movie as well. There is a section entitled Character Testimonials that presents monologues from a number of the characters. These scenes were originally shot for use in the group therapy segments of the movie, but were ultimately cut. Some of the best acting in the movie comes from these scenes, as does some of the best insight into the lives of the characters. There is also a section that gives instructions on how to make a gum wrapper chain; Bullock's character makes a quite lengthy chain as a form of release during her stay in rehab. Also included are "Guitar Guy's Lost Songs," two songs performed by a guitar player who is in the background of many of the rehab scenes. Finally, there is an interesting feature that provides the lost episodes of "Santa Cruz," the soap opera that becomes a favorite of Gwen's rehab group. This feature is an interesting touch, but at twenty-four minutes in length goes on for far too long and is really more painful than enjoyable to watch. It's like watching an inside joke that everyone gets but no one really thinks is all that funny.
The commentary track on this disc features director Betty Thomas, producer Jenno Topping, editor Peter Teshner, and composer Richard Gibbs. Each of them brings a slightly different perspective to the movie, and they make very clear what their intentions were in every scene. They also give some interesting background into the process of moviemaking in general. Thomas explains a lot of the techniques she used to film and subsequently assemble many sequences, and I found this very interesting. Also of interest was the extent to which she planned very carefully for the movie's eventual release to broadcast television, including shooting some scenes with alternate dialogue.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is definitely a solid cast here, and a competent director who knows what she is doing. However, the movie come across as formulaic, manipulative, and shallow. This is due in large part to the script by Susannah Grant, who also wrote the script for Erin Brockovich. Her greatest accomplishment here is the way she wrote Bullock's character, but she dropped this interesting, complex character in the middle of a plot better suited to a Lifetime network original movie. The movie simply tries too hard to be funny and touching and uplifting and a tearjerker all at once, and as a result doesn't accomplish any of them very well. In the end, 28 Days never really picks a course and stays with it, and that is its greatest downfall. It seemed at times that Bullock and Buscemi were acting in what was potentially a very good drama, while the supporting cast was trying to overpower them with comic relief. This indecision is apparent in the marketing of the movie as well; the trailer seems to promise a madcap rehab comedy, and the HBO special seems to focus almost exclusively on the comedic aspects as well. Even the DVD packaging is misleading, taking on an excessively comedic tone that seems out of touch with the bulk of the movie.
The depiction of drug rehab in this movie struck me as overly simplistic and sanitized. If quitting drugs were this easy, it seems everyone would be doing it. Rehab is depicted as a summer camp where people sing, chant, play with horses, and eventually go home all better. It seems more a vacation than any sort of treatment. This shallow depiction of the realities of drug rehab serves to further undermine whatever sense of purpose the movie may have had. The few times that serious issues, such as recidivism and even death, are tackled they are dealt with very briefly. Even then they are glossed over with humor, brushed aside and quickly forgotten.
There are some very simple structural problems in the movie as well. A large part of the middle of the movie is spent meandering about the rehab center, watching seemingly random activities. There is also an attempt to set up a big payoff at the end of the movie that doesn't really pay off. And when the end of the movie does arrive, it comes as a paradox. The end seems to come very quickly, out of nowhere. On the other hand, it also seems to be delayed forever as we journey through a series of false endings, any one of which would have been a suitable place to end.
28 Days is passable entertainment, but its lack of a sense of purpose or identity disappointed me. I enjoyed parts of it very much, especially Bullock's performance, but also found it trite and tedious at times. Fans of Bullock (such as yours truly and my wife) will want to see this, and possibly won't be disappointed. For everyone else, I would advise more caution. If you are really dying to see a confused comedy/drama set in a rehab clinic, then maybe this is the movie for you.
The film and its makers are convicted of making a confused and shallow movie out of a very serious subject that could have been fertile ground for a very good film. The cast are acquitted, especially Steve Buscemi and Sandra Bullock for their performances. However, this court feels that Ms. Bullock has still not shown her full potential as an actress, and strongly advises her to find a dramatic role worthy or her apparent talents. Columbia/TriStar is acquitted on the strength of another very good DVD presentation with a nice array of extra features.
We stand adjourned.
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