28 DAYS Turns 25!
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the film's production, it's remarkable to me how much impact 28 Days film still has on the recovery sector. Every time we start new RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs meetings in treatment facilities around the country, 9 times out of 10 the Clinical Director will ask if 28 Days is included in the Workbook (it is). To an extend never seen before, 28 Days had a profound and positive impact on public perception about recovery and the rehab industry as a whole.
The power of this film - like many other films about addiction and recovery that are included in our program - also lies in the fact that it shows essential truths about recovery, and allows people to identify with characters, like Sandra Bullock, who are undergoing difficult but profound transformations in their lives. And that's really the whole point of the RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs program: Identification with others who are struggling and fighting to recover can often lead to deep self-reevaluation. And when this happens in a therapeutic setting, the results can be astounding.
Some of the key issues the film helps people in (or out) of recovery explore include:
- How common social activities for young professionals like bar-hopping and heavy drinking with friends can turn into serious problems for some
- The various ways people in rehab try to “bend the rules” in order to avoid the hard work of recovery
- The powerful role of mutual support meetings and strong social bonds in successful recovery
- The influence of a parent’s past addiction on their son’s or daughter’s present day behaviors
- How successful rehab has as much to do with honestly admitting you have a problem as it does with stopping the consumption of drugs and/or alcohol
With this in mind, we are pleased to offer this review of the film published in the book many of you have read and hopefully enjoyed: ADDICTED IN FILM: Movies We Love About the Habits We Hate...
Recovery as a Luxury Staycation
If you ask people who are in recovery what their favorite movie about recovery is, a lot of them will tell you it’s 28 Days starring Sandra Bullock.And if you ask people who are not in recovery whether they’ve seen the film, they’ll probably say yes, and that they loved it. 28 Days is one of those rare films included in this book that managed to accomplish two things: 1) Raise awareness about alcohol use disorder and treatment, and 2) Sell a lot of movie tickets. So congratulations to Sony Pictures for opening the film at number 2 at the U.S. box office when it was released in April of 2000.
The success of 28 Days film must have come as a delightful surprise to the studio given the "difficult" subject matter. It had been twelve years since Clean and Sober with Michael Keaton was released, and the box-office results for that film were tepid. The producers also took a bit of a gamble on director Betty Thomas, who was better-known as a cast member on Hill Street Blues. She had broken out of TV jail by directing low-brow feature comedies like The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts, and Dr. Dolittle. But she amply showed that her films could make money, and 28 Days continued her hot streak. Sandra Bullock was more of a question mark because of her waning star power in Hollywood at the time (how do you top the success of Speed?). Of course, time would amply prove that Bullock's career was only beginning.
Many critics and recovery bloggers loved the film because it seemed very true to its subject matter. I would go a step further and posit that 28 Days also had a profound and positive impact on public perception about recovery and the rehab industry as a whole. I’ve been involved in treatment center marketing, and all my clients tell me that 28 Days was extremely helpful in the public’s perception of their important work. The facility featured in the film, “Serenity Glen” (not a real place) actually becomes one of the stars of the film. The food looks great. The people are happy. Everyone watches soap operas together every night, cuddled together under blankets. The facility seems so pleasant and transformative that it makes recovery seem almost...fun.
(And who ever said recovery couldn't be fun?)
SANDRA BULLOCK in 28 DAYS
It's really fun until it's not...
But let’s start with Sandra Bullock’s wonderfully authentic performance as Gwen Cummings, a rather run-of-the-mill party animal who likes to drink a lot. She has the ideal wing man in the form of her boyfriend Jasper, played by British actor Dominic West (of The Wire fame), in one of his more devilish performances. We meet the couple out at a club drinking and dancing the night away with friends, filmed in a grainy low-quality video format, akin to watching granny’s old VHS tapes. It was a wonderful choice by director Thomas because grainy and low-quality is precisely what memories seem like after a night of heavy drinking.
Gwen awakens after her night of partying and doesn’t even realize what day it is. The scene is played for laughs in the film, but for most people with alcohol use disorders this is usually cause for terror. At any rate, it’s Saturday morning and Gwen and Jasper must get dressed and out the door quickly to attend her sister’s wedding. Getting dressed quickly is stressful, apparently, so they start drinking all over again.
The couple make it to the ceremony (barely) and we’re introduced to Gwen’s sister Lily, played by the always-amazing Elizabeth Perkins. In a short scene in the dressing room right before the nuptials, Lily’s frosty demeanor towards her sister wonderfully telegraphs the years she’s had to tolerate Gwen’s antics. It’s summed up perfectly in Lily’s line: “You make it impossible to love you.”
Cut to the wedding reception where Gwen and Jasper, clearly hammered out of their minds, try to dance. Every bride’s worst nightmare comes true as Gwen loses her balance and crashes into the wedding cake. How else was it supposed to go, really? She then has the brilliant idea to steal a limo and drive drunk to find a cake shop. She crashes into a house; thankfully there are no injuries. It could have been so much worse. And in reality, it usually is.
Now, given the severity of what she’s done, and the fact that she’s such an unsympathetic character up to that point, I would have expected her to go to prison. But this being a movie, and Gwen probably having great insurance, she gets a 28-day stay in cushy rehab instead. Makes you wonder what happens to most people who don’t have great insurance, or any insurance, or money to pay for highly motivated private attorneys instead of beleaguered and overworked public defenders.
Too cool for school...
This brings up a somewhat dicey topic. An ongoing debate in the addiction and recovery space centers on the question of whether “Fate and the State” (drug and alcohol arrests leading to state-mandated jail time) pays better long-term dividends than state-supported (or subsidized) treatment programs aka Harm Reduction. A similar conundrum is familiar to anyone who has children: Do you discipline your kids with punishment, or with other less “harmful” ways?
Countries like Portugal have completely decriminalized drugs (and alcohol-related arrests) and moved all the money they would have spent on correctional facilities that punish people over to rehab facilities that help them, as well as job creation programs. Does it work? United Nations commissions seem to think so. So do many rational people. But for some reason most countries, including and especially the U.S., are reluctant to tread into these waters.
At any rate, Gwen shows up to rehab and is as enthusiastic as one might expect. Director Betty Thomas and her production designer Marcia Hinds do a marvelous job of imbuing the facility with a character all its own, complete with creepy group-hug kumbaya moments outside, group singing, and hilarious public address system announcements like: “Tonight’s Lecture: What’s Wrong with Celebrating Sobriety by Getting Drunk?”
Needless to say, Gwen is not down with the program. She makes it very clear that she “does not belong there,” that she is not like “those people.” Well listen, Sandra Bullock, I got news for you: There are people who have been going to support meetings and stayed sober for the better part of half a century and still don’t think they’re like “those people.” Any program has its share of denialists. Apparently some countries do too.
Gwen is also put off balance by the ritualistic nature of the program she is now forced to participate in. Perhaps so too were audiences who had never been inside an actual rehab facility or attended a 12-Step meeting. But it's an easy landing: Congratulations to the film’s exceptionally talented screenwriter Susannah Grant (writer of Erin Brockovich), who did her homework. In order to make 12-Steps sound less "cultish," words like “disease” are used less than they normally would in such a context, as are the words “God” and “Higher Power.”
At one point the facility director Cornell (played with unusual seriousness by usually-over-the-top-weird actor Steve Buscemi), does throw out the time-tested “God doesn’t dump more on you than you can handle” quote at one point, but it’s meant more as a metaphor than actual therapeutic advice. We all know that a little faith can go a long way in recovery.
Sometimes God gives you too much to handle...
In keeping with the typical 3-Act structure of all successful screenplays, Gwen spends all of the second act transforming from a cynical “here but not here” forced participant into a fully engaged “I get it now” joiner. She loses her shit in a support meeting, which in 12-Step represents a major breakthrough. She’s forced to clean toilets, in keeping with apostolic and monastic traditions of salvation through menial labor. And she does some Equine Therapy and rock climbing. Any clinician will tell you, there are multiple pathways to recovery.
Along the way we learn through flashbacks that Gwen’s mother had a drinking problem and perished as a result. There was no father in the picture either. These sad realities do create a sense of empathy for Gwen. I wish there was a softer way to say it, but tragic backstories can only go so far to justify continued self-abuse. Part of the reason Gwen is in rehab to begin with is not just to have those flashbacks, but to do something about the feelings they provoke without self-medicating.
28 Days succeeds at being earnest, but it is also really funny. Gwen’s journey to redemption and sobriety is helped along by a hysterical ensemble cast that transforms the typically somber affair of rehab into something more like a cool-kids summer camp. And screenwriter Grant confects characters that cover the gamut of addictions and personality types: There’s Gwen’s fragile heroin-addicted teenage roommate played by Azura Skye; English actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste affecting an Inner-City welfare-mom accent as gossip-queen pill-popper Roshanda; Mike O’Malley as Oliver, a wisecracking recovering cocaine user who sleeps with every woman (minus Bullock, although not for lack of trying); the legendary Diane Ladd as moonshine aficionado Bobbie Jean, representing the “elderly” recovery demographic (which is surprisingly large); Reni Santoni as a curmudgeonly Doctor Daniel (yes, doctors get addicted a lot); and lastly Alan Tudyk as Gerhardt, the German who can’t stop crying. Ask anyone who has seen it: Gerhardt singlehandedly steals the movie. Tudyk steals any movie he’s in.
Casts can only take you so far. All successful Hollywood movies need a bad guy and a love interest. I would argue that the “bad guy” in this film is actually Addiction itself. It is brought to life in the character of Gwen’s boyfriend Jasper. He so perfectly embodies what Addiction would actually say that you forget that he’s a living breathing character. On his first visit, Jasper slips Gwen some Vicodin. After all, Addictions need to convince their hosts to feed them. On the next visit, he tries to convince Gwen that she doesn’t have a problem. Everybody else does. When that doesn’t work, Addiction tries other word salad gems like (not quoted verbatim): “The whole point of life is to care less…people aren’t happy unless they drink...the point of life is to minimize the pain of existence; that’s where I come in…” and my personal all time mind-fuck favorite ”Your life is so incredibly screwed up; you might as well screw it up even more!”
Thanks Addictions! You’re so thoughtful! Such a giver!
Come on, it'll be different this time...
Jasper eventually proposes to Gwen out of desperation. After all, Addictions will promise you anything not to leave them. And apparently they’re quite jealous too. Like when Jasper gets into a fight with Gwen’s “love interest” Eddie, played by Lord-Of-The-Rings hall-of-famer Viggo Mortensen.
It is with the character of Eddie, a dual diagnosis alcohol/sex addicted pro baseball player, that the film hits a bit of a speedbump. The rules of a typical Hollywood movie would see Gwen and Eddie falling in love during rehab and then living happily and abstemiously ever after. But apparently the film’s producers got the memo: The point of rehab isn’t to find love, it’s to find yourself. So as a result, Eddie doesn’t have much of a role to play in the film except as a chisel-jawed sounding board for Gwen. That and the hypotenuse of a love triangle with Gwen and Jasper that never quite materializes. But Eddie does tell Gwen that she should steer clear of Jasper. And that’s probably the best professional or non-professional advice anyone could give her.
The scene of Gwen’s eventual reconciliation with her sister Lily is brief but satisfying. And this is no small task, given the complexity of family dynamics as they pertain to a loved one struggling with Addiction. Lily has obviously been to war and back with Gwen’s problem. And, if this were the real world, Lily would be long gone. But thankfully this isn’t the real world. The film shows us that forgiveness is always possible, regardless of how bad the circumstances. It also reminds us how crucial relationships are for successful recovery.
Kudos to the filmmakers for also staying true to the depressing statistics about relapse. Just a few short scenes after the curmudgeonly Doctor Daniel is discharged, he returns with a black eye and no recollection of how he got it. He embodies just one of the seven-out-of-ten people who will fail at long term recovery and end up recycling through treatment centers.
Will Gwen be one of the seven who fail, or the three who make it? Director Betty Thomas certainly teases the possibility of failure when Gwen returns home to New York City. Declan Quinn, a superb cinematographer, infuses each shot with bright neon liquor store and bar signs. Alcohol seems to be everywhere. As it is in real life.
But this is a Hollywood movie after all, so the story ends on a positive note. Gwen ends her relationship with Jasper, and seems to be in the clear, recovery-wise. But for a person like Gwen in real life, the end is really just the beginning. Quitting is the easy part. Now the real work begins. And we hope Gwen does it, because anyone’s recovery success—in film or in real life—is cause for celebration.
28 Days has a well-deserved place in most everybody’s list of top-10 movies about addiction and recovery, it's its amazing when you consider that a quarter century after it was produced, it's still as relevant as ever. The filmmakers don’t sugar-coat rehab, but don’t expose any sordid underbellies either. The film proves that difficult messaging about challenging topics can be accomplished with levity and honesty and a great deal of humor.