Published April 1, 2000
For a few moments near the beginning of Betty Thomas’s 28 Days (written by Susannah Grant) you might almost begin to think that the comic drunk, that staple of 1950s humor who has now almost completely disappeared from the cultural landscape, was making a comeback. Nowadays, of course, we tend to think that laughing at a drunk is like laughing at a blind person or (and I’m old enough to remember these jokes too) a spastic. In fact, one hasn’t even heard the word spastic in thirty years or more. Like “cripple” it is thought (I guess) insensitive. “Drunk,” too, is frowned on, and the more dignified-seeming “alcoholic” is applied even to the bums who sleep in the street. 28 Days doesn’t much use either term, and Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock), sent to the Serenity Glen Rehab Center somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains after a DWI conviction, is meant to be seen as an “addictive personality” in need of professional treatment.
On the plus side, there are some good drunk jokes, though the movie makes up for the potential un-p.c. quality of same by putting Gwen through the treatment. Also on the plus side is the fact that the treatment is not treated with the kind of sober reverence that we might have expected from a latter-day, more high-tech but equally moralistic version of The Lost Weekend. The people in the treatment center, drunks and junkies and pill-poppers, are all funny as well. But they are meant to be touching-funny, and after a while their underlying goodness and decency becomes a bit wearing, a bit unreal. Somehow, one guesses, there would be a lot more nastiness and unattractiveness among the inmates of a real re-hab center.
But Ms Thomas knows what she is doing. This isn’t meant to look real. It is meant to mine both the addictions and the recovery process for their abundant seams of humor without ever losing the light touch that keeps away any charge of insensitivity. A lot of this humor comes from Gwen’s wisecracks at the expense of her over-earnest keepers. When one of them says that “God never dumps more on us than we can handle,” she replies: “Oh, can I get that stitched on a pillow?” But of course Gwen’s wisecracks soon have to be toned down if she is to recover, as she must, and their place is taken by announcements over the institution’s PA system–like “Tonight’s lecture: what’s wrong with celebrating sobriety by getting drunk?” You’ve got to find some way to squeeze in all the one-liners.
There are some serious moments. The excellent Miss Azura Skye, whose name makes her sounds like a porn star, plays Gwen’s room-mate, Andrea, a heroin addict. We can pretty much tell that she’s headed for a less happy end than Gwen obviously is. But her addiction to the soap opera “Santa Cruz” becomes a major motif of the film (Gwen’s staging of an imaginary scene from the show using her fellow inmates as actors is quite funny and the only evidence we actually see of the fact that she is supposed to be a writer) and helps to soften the blow. By constantly making fun of the soap opera, the film finds a way of making fun of itself and its rather soap-operaish ethos as well. This is rather charming, besides being another way of keeping reality at arm’s length.
One drawback of this approach is that neither poor Steve Buscemi, who plays Gwen’s “counselor,” nor anyone else on the staff of Serenity Glen, is given enough to do. If they were more in evidence, the film would presumably have become too moralistic and heavy with the portents of self-destruction that are only hinted at and so collapse under its own weight. As it is, it succeeds only in not doing that, and in being frequently and sometimes in spite of ourselves very funny. But I fear that many people will still find that its portraying Recovery, like Drunkenness, as a joke is in rather poor taste.