The drug-rehab drama "28 Days" represents a change of pace for both actress Sandra Bullock and director Betty Thomas. For Bullock, "28 Days" offers her a chance to break free from the light romantic-comedy confines that have so far defined her career, such as in "Hope Floats" and "Practical Magic". For Thomas, the director of "Dr. Doolittle" and "Private Parts", "28 Days" offers an opportunity to segue into more hard-hitting dramatic fare. And though the story ends up as a superficial and heavy-handed look at the scourge of drug addiction, "28 Days" does benefit from Bullock's likable performance that puts her untapped dramatic range to good use.
Gwen Cummings (Bullock) is the life of the party. Living only for the day, and putting little thought into the consequences of her actions, Gwen spends her nights partying with her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West of "Spice World"), while under the constant influence of booze and pills. However, her wanton lifestyle soon gets the better of her after she inadvertently ruins her sister's (Elizabeth Perkins of TV's "Battery Park") wedding, first by destroying the wedding cake, and second by hijacking the honeymoon limo and crashing it into a house. Given the choice of serving jail time or doing 28 days of rehab, Gwen opts to spend a month in Serenity Glen, a New Age-type treatment facility in the country.
This is where the film is most compelling, as Thomas visually conveys Gwen's disorientation as she tries to cope with her new surroundings, as well as the troubling memories that keep her awake at night. Gwen is an addict in denial, and her rebellious actions attest to this self-destructive attitude. She rebels against the retreat's rules that restrict the use of all drugs, including caffeine, and rejects all attempts to assimilate with the other kooky-but-lovable residents, which includes activities such as prayer, chanting, and singing.
Inevitably, Gwen hits bottom and finally realizes that she cannot overcome her problems without a helping hand. With a renewed sense of purpose, Gwen confronts the consequences of her wild ways, including the anguish that she has brought upon her sister, and begins to find positive ways to use her energy and passion. Unfortunately, the road to recovery is a bumpy one, particularly with the negative influence of her boyfriend, who shamelessly tempts her with booze and pills each time he visits her at the retreat.
"28 Days" draws immediate comparisons to last year's mildly-interesting "Girl, Interrupted", given the similar setting and ensemble cast of kooky characters. Unlike the dark and dreary "Girl, Interrupted", "28 Days" goes to the opposite extreme by presenting the Hollywood-sanitized version of drug addiction treatment, and steers clear of showcasing anything too disturbing for mainstream audiences. And though this makes for a much more entertaining and lively film, some of what appears on-screen fails to ring true, particularly towards the film's latter half. A case in point would be the film's closing scene, in which the heavy-handed symbolism seems almost schoolgirl-ish in conception.
At the center of "28 Days" is Bullock, who exhibits a much wider range than she has shown in her previous films. From the wild child antics at the start of the film to her sober understanding of her responsibilities to herself at the end, Bullock manages the transition of her character credibly, without losing sight of her likable demeanor or trademark vulnerability. Unfortunately, the Susannah Grant-penned script (who also wrote "Erin Brockovich") leaves much of Gwen's character a mystery, despite the use of flashbacks to flesh in the details on her troubled childhood. It's not too clear what she does for a living (if anything), what she sees in Jasper, what she aspires to be, or the history between Gwen and her sister (which makes a weepy moment in the third act a little hard to swallow).
Rounding out the cast are a number of familiar faces, who, unfortunately, are given little to do. The most prominent would be Steve Buscemi ("Armageddon"), who is interestingly cast-against-type as Gwen's by-the-book counselor, especially in light of the less-than-savory characters he is usually associated with-- it's too bad that his role wasn't more prominent in the story. Viggo Mortensen ("Psycho") delivers a low-key performance as a professional baseball player sidelined by alcohol and sex addiction, whose inevitable relationship with Gwen is made palatable by how telling it is about her growing emotional independence. Alan Tudyk ("Wonder Boys") plays Gerhardt, the film's most flamboyant character, a sexually-ambiguous German with a speech impediment whose attempts at comic relief don't always hit the mark. Similarly, Reni Santoni ("Can't Hardly Wait") and Michael O'Malley ("Pushing Tin") are wasted as one-joke characters, while Azura Skye's ("EdTV") portrayal of Gwen's soap opera-addicted teenage roommate is a textbook example of the cliché 'insecure and suicidal roommate'.
Despite how it sanitizes the often-ugly road to recovery for addiction and runs out of steam in the second-half, "28 Days" manages to be appealing given Sandra Bullock's likable performance, probably her most well-rounded in years. Similar to how Meg Ryan segued into more dramatic roles after "When a Man Loves a Woman" or Michael Keaton expanded his range after "Clean and Sober", it seems the 'girl-next-door' actress is trying to redefine herself with a drama on addiction. Will she be successful? Only time will tell, but "28 Days" is a decent start.