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28 DAYS

by: Scott Renshaw

How's this for damnation via faint praise: I'm pretty impressed that 28 Days didn't turn out to be an utterly unwatchable disaster. There aren't many film premises that would set off my Early Crap Alert System like a feel-good comedy-drama about folks in a rehab clinic (maybe Robin Williams in a feel-good comedy-drama about a robot who wants to be human). You've got your pathos, you've got your cheap emotion, you've got your showy drunken scenes for actors and you've got your central character arc so rigidly defined you could set your watch by when denial turns into a great big group hug.

I've got to hand it to director Betty Thomas for lending 28 Days a little dark edge, and to screenwriter Susannah Grant for delivering a few more solid laughs than I was expecting. Unfortunately, they're still not able to overcome the basic flaws in their story. Their protagonist is Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock), a party girl always running just on the edge of out-of-control with her drinking and pill-popping. She crosses over that edge when she leaves her sister's (Elizabeth Perkins) wedding in a shambles and crashes a limousine into a house. Gwen finds herself sentenced to a four week stay at Serenity Glen Rehabilitation Center, where she initially refuses to identify with the other patients. Soon, however, she realizes she does have a problem, and begins the long, slow road to sobriety.

Emphasis on the "long" and "slow." Gwen actually hits bottom relatively early in 28 Days, leaving plenty of time for comic episodes focusing on Gwen's fellow travellers, including Oliver (Mike O'Malley), a doughy self-styled ladies' man; Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk), a flamboyant gay man who grows emotional easily; Eddie (Viggo Mortensen), a professional baseball pitcher; and Andrea (Azura Skye), Gwen's high-strung, soap opera- and heroin-addicted roommate. There are more than a few good gags to be found in the interaction between the support group members, but there's nothing driving the narrative forward once Gwen decides to go straight. It's not that the process of recovery ends with one decision, of course. In 28 Days, however, the process of drama does end with that one descision, leaving the film to grab at relationships and confrontations that never go anywhere.

Those moments might have seemed more vital if not for the uninspired performance by Sandra Bullock. It feels like I've been a Bullock booster long after most others have leapt from her feisty-cute bandwagon, but there's little going on behind her attitude in 28 Days. Flashback segments show Gwen and her sister dealing with their alcoholic single mother, scenes that should add resonance to Gwen's struggle for sobriety. But there's never any urgency to Gwen's struggle with addiction -- she never slips once she admits she's an alcoholic, and she becomes one of her group's "strong ones" too quickly. At least her post-sobriety scenes are a reprieve from her cartoon rendition of staggering drunkenness. In this role, Bullock looks like she's completely out of her depth.

Then again, depth doesn't really appear to be a priority in 28 Days. Betty Thomas does do a nice job with altered perspectives, shooting hazy memories in grainy video and capturing some funny confessional scenes with an I'm-the-center-of-the-world iris effect. There is the small problem that those confessionals don't really belong in 28 Days, but there's no solid sense of what belongs throughout the story. It becomes frustrating to realize that Gwen's relationship with her equally party-time boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West) is going to be central to the plot, rather than her relationship with her straight-arrow sister. The fragmentation of family, the different paths taken by two adult children of an alcoholic and the challenges of forgiveness could have made for a much more compelling sub-text than a half-h

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