28 DAYS: painfully earnest, addiction-tackling piffle (2000 in Film #15)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of April 14th, Betty Thomas’ 28 Days

All things being equal, I should be talking about American Psycho this week, Mary Harron’s satirical and disturbing adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. Yet, no, here we are with Betty Thomas’ Sandra Bullock starring drama 28 Days.

American Psycho didn’t even come in second place at the box office this weekend. 28 Days took that spot, in the slipstream of Rules of Engagement, which itself struggled on week one thanks to Erin Brockovich. Harron’s film even ended up behind Keeping the Faith, the Ben Stiller/Jenna Elfman romantic comedy none of you probably remember as much as 28 Days, which as Bullock vehicles go is hardly her most high profile. Christian Bale’s turn as psycho killer Richard Bateman deserved better on initial release whereas 28 Days?

The honest truth is that there really isn’t all that much to say about a film like 28 Days, which is about as earnest as the day is long. It is purely designed to give Sandra Bullock, an actor coming out of the 90’s known primarily for romantic comedies and as the erstwhile female foil for Keanu Reeves in (the brilliant) Speed and Jason Patric in (the less that brilliant) Speed 2: Cruise Control, something meaty to chew on. She here must run the gamut from entitled, perky alcoholic through to recovering victim of excess who *cue trailer voiceover guy* learns lessons about herself and the people she loves by the end.

Yes, it’s yucky. Yes, it’s sentimental. Yes, it’s vacuous and yes, you will feel like 28 Days have gone by come the end of the 90 minute running time.

Talking about Erin Brockovich, 28 Days is penned by the same writer, Susannah Grant, but the two films are light years away from each other in quality and it proves any writer is as great as the director turning their words into reality.

Betty Thomas is, let’s be charitable, no Steven Soderbergh. An actress who made her breakthrough as a regular on 80’s cop series Hill Street Blues, winning Emmy’s for her trouble, she graduated with 1992’s romantic comedy Only You from directing television episodes and subsequently helped shepherd the Shelley Long-starring reboot, The Brady Bunch Movie, and was responsible for another remake in the Eddie Murphy-headlined Dr. Dolittle. So in many senses, this was among Thomas’ first experience with heavier, dramatic fare—much like Bullock—after earning her stripes making colourful comedies that tried to evoke the kitsch sentimentality of the 1960’s.

You can see this clash of influences in 28 Days, which flip flops from silly moments of comedy through to serious dramatic sequences across the run of the film, as Bullock’s Gwen begins her transformation at the rehab clinic she ends up at following an incident at the wedding of her elder, non-addict sister (Elizabeth Perkins), where she steals and crashes the wedding car while drunk in search of a replacement for the wedding cake she smashed. “You make it impossible to love you” Perkins’ Lily tells her early on and we can only sympathise. With Lily, not Gwen, you understand. She is a horrendous mess of a human being and alongside her boyfriend Jasper (a should-be-embarrassed-but-isn’t Dominic West) is exactly the kind of person at a family party, or anywhere else, you would desperately try and avoid.

At the beginning of the film, she’s a party girl with zero sense of her own responsibilities or consideration for anyone else, and she and Jasper dance through life with the entitled ignorance of two people who believe they’re the most fun people in the world, when they’re actually the most tedious. While this theoretically should make us get behind Gwen as she begins to change in rehab, as she meets people with deeper mental health issues such as roommate Andrea (Azura Skye), it does the opposite. Gwen is so deeply unlikeable not even Bullock’s innate, kooky charm which she has previously deployed well in films such as While You Were Sleeping or Practical Magic, can save the character, and without saving the character it becomes much harder to save the film.

This is even with a range of talented character actors flanking Bullock throughout: Viggo Mortensen – though he is barely even used considering how talented he is; this would have been much different a couple of years later, post-The Lord of the Rings; Steve Buscemi, as the calmly irascible manager of the rehab clinic; Alan Tudyk as a comedy patient, Diane Ladd, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the list goes on. Many of them slumming it really with a script that Thomas pulls apart for every inch of sentimentality while equally attempting to throw in moments of comedy which, often, fall flat. Everything about it feels an unformed attempt to allow Bullock her moment of gravitas, a Meryl Streep-turn, except Meryl wouldn’t be seen dead near this piffle.

Ultimately, you never *believe* 28 Days is real. It’s almost the inverse fantasy of a romantic comedy, one in which the perky lead character goes from happy and fun to depressed and serious, and as a result it is altogether too simplistic in portraying the kind of gritty mental illness that underpins Gwen’s story. This is an ‘issues’ drama chewed up through the Hollywood schmaltz machine, designed more as a leading woman ego-trip and star vehicle than a bear bones exploration of self-destructive alcoholism and how it destroys the lives of people around it. I can only imagine what a real alcoholic battling their disease must think of a film like this.

In the end, 28 Days can be best summed up by the fact nobody much remembers it two decades on, even if it did no significant harm to Sandra Bullock’s career. She just wisely, for the most part, stuck to what she was good at after this.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

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