Like its protagonist Gwen Cummings, 28 Days is a movie that can’t wait to get started and then doesn’t know how to stop. It begins with a flurry of drunken activity from party girl Gwen (Sandra Bullock, in her latest attempt to move away from her girl-next-door image). She and her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West) wake up late on her sister’s wedding day and kick off the morning with a couple of beers. After a boozy cab ride, Gwen continues to get tanked up at the reception, offering an inappropriate toast and falling through the wedding cake. On her way to purchase a replacement, Gwen crashes her sister’s car into a house and earns herself a twenty-eight day stay in the Serenity Glen drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
All of this happens in the first five minutes of the movie. What follows is two parts unfocused clean-and-sober melodrama mixed with one part screwball romantic comedy. Like the recent Girl, Interrupted, it pits an "America’s sweetheart" type against an institutionalized group of oddballs, then carefully follows the formula that will lead her back to civilization as a healthy, well-adjusted member of society. And like…well, any other Sandra Bullock vehicle, it functions most effectively as a showcase for the star’s perky but slight charms.
In publicity materials for 28 Days, director Betty Thomas expressed her desire to give the film a blackly comic edge – to make it a sort of M*A*S*H Goes to Rehab. She came much closer to pulling off that tone in her 1997 adaptation of Howard Stern’s autobiography, Private Parts. But there’s no equivalent in 28 Days for the anarchic wit of Stern and his cohorts; to the extent that it bears any resemblance to M*A*S*H at all, it is to the later, preachy episodes of the series, not the still scathing and hilarious Altman film. As on the TV show, there are comical P.A. announcements ("Tonight’s lecture will be ‘How many brain cells did I kill last night?’") and Loudon Wainwright III shows up occasionally as a guitar-strumming troubadour. Absent is any resemblance to a coherent satirical vision.
The screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is a sketchy one indeed, and how it ever escaped its rightful home on the Lifetime network remains a mystery. The humor is poorly integrated into what is essentially a weepy affirmation of detox dogma. Thomas takes mocking potshots at the Twelve Step process – the buzz phrases like "use a feeling word", the rituals of chanting and singing together – but they bounce off harmlessly, as if launched from pea shooters. The rehab program itself is never sent up or skewered, its positive results never questioned; thus the picture never builds up a zesty anti-authoritarian head of steam. Instead, the lion’s share of abuse is heaped on the non-Sandra Bullock individuals enrolled in the program – the "freaks trying to get sober in Deliverance country," as Jasper describes them. A motley collection of sitcom refugees they are, each given one broad characteristic to distinguish him or her from the pack and serve as the focal point for cheap gags. (Except for Gerhardt, played with droll comic timing by Alan Tudyk: he’s gay and a foreigner with a funny accent – double the laughs!)
As for the romance, it’s a non-starter. There’s never any doubt that Gwen’s new life will have no place for fellow boozehound Jasper. This leaves us with Viggo Mortenson, who appears to be channeling former Bullock beau Matthew McConaughey as baseball star Eddie Boone, a sex and booze addict who befriends Gwen but never beds her. After twenty-eight false endings – don’t let that swell of music as Gwen drives away from Serenity Glen fool you – 28 Days apparently reaches its predetermined running time and screeches to a halt. This is becoming something of a trend in recent movies – Black and White and Rules of Engagement reach similar narrative cul-de-sacs. In each case, we are left wondering: "If they were just going to end this thing randomly – couldn’t they have done it sooner?"