Saturday, December 6, 2008

28 Days (Columbia, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was one of a couple of DVD’s I’d had Charles buy us at Vons from their two-for-$10 table: 28 Days, a rehab movie from 2000 that I’d been curious about for a while — Charles had brought over a VHS tape of it from one of his friends who was getting rid of them all now that it’s the DVD era (and no sooner will I have everything on DVD than the format will probably change again and everything will be exclusively on Blu-Ray … or perhaps the next format, in which the player will beam movies directly into people’s heads without the intervention of any other hardware) and I had seen the DVD on sale last night … the cover promised a widescreen version but the disc itself didn’t deliver anything other than the pan-and-scan version, though this wasn’t the sort of movie that really suffered much from being panned-and-scanned.

28 Days has been criticized for being too light, too fluffy and more of a pop-rehab movie than one that really drags the audience through the depths of addiction and the difficulty of recovery — and that all may be true, but I found it charming, at times hilarious, at times deeply moving and entertaining throughout, and from what I’ve read about addiction treatments — especially high-end residential programs in rural settings like the one (“Serenity Glen”) depicted here — the routines as shown here, including the boot camp-like aspects and the use of ritual shaming as a therapeutic technique (in one scene the heroine is forced to wear a sign around her neck at all times that reads, “Confront me if I don’t ask for help”) and even the bizarre routine involving horses (the idea is that just being around equines is comforting for humans and helps them get centered and grow beyond their addictions) ring true.

28 Days is the story of Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock, displaying the kind of compact dark-haired feminine appeal and no-nonsense attitude that probably would have made her a good choice for a movie about Christine Maggiore), New York party girl and some sort of writer (the synopsis describes her as a newspaper columnist but that’s not apparent from the film itself) whose flame-out is shown by writer Susannah Grant and director Betty Thomas in a few quick economical scenes: she’s at a party at a New York disco where they’re playing the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (the idea that anywhere in the world there’s a disco in 2000 that’s playing the Clash itself requires a suspension of disbelief!) and Gwen is publicly losing it, slamming her body into everybody else’s table and undressing a man and commencing sex with him right on the dance floor. We don’t even have any idea that these two people know each other until we see them continuing the proceedings in a rather ratty-looking apartment, and we don’t know that they’re actually a couple until they wake up in bed together the next morning after their amorous but drug- and alcohol-fueled activities accidentally set fire to the place; fortunately, the male, Jasper (Dominic West), was able to put the fire out without much lasting damage to anything except Gwen’s bra, which how has two large holes in it in front of where the nipples would ordinarily go.

Though it’s Saturday, Gwen suddenly realizes that they’re late for a major appointment, and it turns out it’s the wedding of her sister Lily (Elizabeth Perkins) to strait-laced young man Andrew (Andrew Dolan). Several sheets to the wind not only on the alcohol and prescription drugs (Vicodin is her drug of choice) she consumed the night before but the ones she’s hurriedly gulped down that morning, Gwen grabs food from the hors d’oeuvre trays with her mouth without any intervention from her hands first; later she takes the entire tray and places it on a chair, where a matronly lady sits on it and ruins her dress; still later she grabs a drink, tosses it down, loses her balance and falls ass-first in the wedding cake, then steals the black limousine the bride and groom had rented to take them from their wedding to their wedding night with the drug-induced intention of finding a cake store and buying a replacement on the spot. Only she loses control of the limousine and crashes it into one of those silly hitching-post statues of one of her sister’s neighbors, and the next we see of her she’s confronting the admissions clerk at Serenity Glen (it’s supposed to be in upstate New York but the scenes there were actually filmed in Asheville, North Carolina),who’s ordering her to surrender her cell phone and other possessions (“This ain’t the Sheraton,” the clerk growls) while she serves the 28 days in rehab she’s been sentenced to as an alternative to jail for the theft of the car and the damage she did with it.

From then on the movie becomes a sort of updated adult version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with Gwen entering rehab as the freshest girl, with a big-time chip on her shoulder and a total disinclination to take the process at all seriously. She approaches a man on the shore of the lake that borders the place, asks him for a cigarette — which he provides (nicotine being the one addictive substance the inmates of this place are permitted) — and to score for her, which he refuses, telling her that her counselor will have her thrown out (which will automatically lead to her serving time in jail) if she’s caught using on the premises. Then it turns out this rather nerdy-looking man is her counselor, Cornell Shaw (Steve Buscemi).

Gwen is put off by her roommate, teenage heroin addict and self-mutilator Andrea (Azura Skye), and isn’t much more thrilled by many of the other people there, including Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk), a German-accented Gay man whose already thick voice approaches incomprehensibility and goes over at his most emotionally intense moments; Eddie (Viggo Mortensen, looking genuinely sexy for one of the few times in his career), a professional baseball player who’s in for addictions to cocaine and casual sex with women (he even makes a pass at Our Heroine even though on-campus sex between patients is yet another one of the bozo-no-no’s around the place); Daniel (Reni Santoni), a former doctor whose idea of handling his alcohol consumption was sticking a tube down his throat into his stomach so he could suck it all out again, until one day he missed, hit his neck, required a life-saving tracheotomy (presumably from a more sober surgeon than himself!) and lost his license as a result; and several others, including one referred to in the credits simply as “Guitar Guy” who sings deliberately awful songs about substance abuse and recovery (and is played, surprise, by a genuinely talented major music star, Loudon Wainwright III).

Andrea’s biggest disappointment in rehab is she’s missing the new episodes of her favorite soap opera, Santa Cruz — the inmates are allowed to watch TV only during the evenings — but Eddie is also a Santa Cruz fan (as a pitcher, he doesn’t have to play every day so he follows the soap on the days he has off) and he has episodes sneaked in on videotape. The “soap opera” is actually a demented satire — I’m presuming Susannah Grant wrote the scenes we see depicting it as well as the overall script for the film, and she (or whoever) put tongue firmly in cheek and came up with a marvelously accurate lampoon of soap-opera plots (the young lovers are not only brother and sister but it turns out each one is also involved with an older partner, and the girl’s lover is the doctor who’s supposed to be treating her brother/boyfriend for a fictitious disease with a long Latinate medical name that supposedly amounts to a lot of little clots in his brain instead of one big one).

Eddie teaches Gwen to throw a baseball and hit the strike zone (he’s presumably going back to his team and so he’s set up a practice target on the grounds); and, appalled by the usual send-off the facility gives its clients/patients/inmates/whatever the hell they are after the titular 28 days (a group hug and sing of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” — which is heard as the outro music on the closing credits, though alas in Tom Jones’s then-recent cover rather than Withers’s far more subtle, plaintive original), when Andrea is discharged Gwen stages a mock scene from Santa Cruz with the other clients taking parts. Alas, it does no good as Gwen sneaks in a dose of heroin and O.D.’s fatally — but the tragedy seems to put the final seal on Gwen’s own recovery, and there’s the inevitable tag scene in which Gwen and Jasper try to get together afterwards but find that without booze and pills to unite them, they really have nothing in common. (The scene in which she approaches a horse from one of New York’s remaining hansom cabs and does the exercise she learned in the facility — and Jasper is left perplexed that she’s jilted him for a horse! — is one of the funniest and most poignant in the film.)

Gerhardt, who while in rehab asked the counselor about whether or not he could have sex and was told to buy a plant, and if it’s still alive in one year buy a pet, and if that is still alive in one year maybe he can consider dating again, turns up with a dead plant pleading with the florist who sold it to him, “It can’t be my fault that this plant died or I’ll never get laid again!” — an example of how the logic of rehab (that you can’t involve yourself with other people until you’ve first finished your work on yourself) can be stretched to the fascistically absurd. No, 28 Days is not the great rehab movie (or the great anti-drug or anti-drinking movie), but it’s charming, funny, poignant and quite well done — and ably held together by Bullock’s performance, equally credible in the character’s stoned and sober moments.