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28 Days

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 14 April 2000

Directed by Betty Thomas

Starring Sandra Bullock, 
Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, 
Loudon Wainwright III, Dominic West, 
Elizabeth Perkins, and Azura Skye

Written by Susannah Grant 

I think that critics often base their movie reviews around a single scathing tag line, often composed before they even see the film in question. Betty Thomas's new drama, 28 Days, seems to be falling victim to this irresponsible trend: virtually every review I've seen dismisses the film with a minor variation of the statement, "28 Days feels like it lasts about as long as its title." While a lead-in sentence like this admittedly makes for great copy, it does not represent responsible journalism. 28 Days is admittedly no masterpiece, but director Thomas has succeeded in crafting together an entertaining film that will charm all but the most stoic viewers.

Sandra Bullock plays Gwen Cummings, the wild-child daughter of an alcoholic mother, whose enslavement to booze and pills ends in near- tragedy. Offered a choice between going to jail or spending twenty-eight days in rehab, Gwen opts to walk the path of cleanliness. Even in the strict confines of the treatment center, however, staying sober and drug-free proves to be a challenge... particularly when Gwen's boyfriend, Jasper (Dominic West), never misses an opportunity to smuggle in contraband. But Gwen soon befriends her new roommate, Andrea (Azura Skye), and the two of them, along with the other motley group of "guests," are soon working together towards their common goal: sobriety.

The majority of the cast is pretty good, but Sandra Bullock achieves more than mere competence -- Thomas coaxes what may well be the strongest performance of Bullock's career from the actress. This comes as no surprise to me: Thomas was an excellent choice to helm this particular project, having charmed audiences with her dead-on satire of the '70s, The Brady Bunch Movie. Clearly she has a handle on eccentric, offbeat characters -- a strength that serves her well here.

A number of great cameos highlight the film, including Steve Buscemi as Gwen's compassionate counselor. Best of all, however, is Loudon Wainwright III, the acclaimed folk singer, who steals the show with his recurring appearances as a recovering alcoholic known only as Guitar Guy. Whenever things get too serious, Guitar Guy pops up and performs a tune -- and they're usually hilarious -- effectively diffusing the discomfort of any particular scene. Wainwright is by far my favorite living songwriter, and seeing him on the big screen was a particular treat (you may remember him as Captain Calvin Spalding, the singing surgeon from M*A*S*H). Bullock, West and the great songs from Wainwright help elevate a rather formulaic screenplay into something a bit more finely crafted, and both cast and director are to be commended for this achievement.

That's not to imply that they've achieved perfection, of course: there are plenty of morality notes which are hit a little too frequently -- I never want to see another group of people holding hands and singing Lean on Me, for instance -- but overall the film manages to charm while simultaneously confronting the twin demons of alcoholism and drug addition. It's a rare story that can make you smile one moment and weep the next, and 28 Days, while flawed, is worthy of a peek simply for its calm, confident ability to make the audience traverse the entire emotional spectrum in a mere two hours.

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