Film and TV

Detox for Dummies

Rehab, sweet rehab. Last resort of the alcoholic, the drug addict and the would-be suicide. Free room and board, lots of tender loving care and a whole herd of fellow recovering screwups who'll always be there for you, and are willing to apologize and admit their imperfections at the drop of a hat. Throw in an Islands of Adventure-style obstacle course, the majestic backdrop of the great Smoky Mountains and a brand of tough love that includes confiscating all those annoying cell phones -- not to mention the fact that your stay is offered as an alternative to prison. It doesn't get any better than this, right?

Perhaps not, if you happen to be a character in a movie and portrayed by Sandra Bullock. It's all perfectly harmless fiction, provided that no one exits 28 Days with the idea that real-life rehab is this much of a blast. No one has ever looked as good as Sandra manages to with a massive contusion on her forehead, or lying on the bathroom floor next to a puke-filled commode. If this is what alcoholism is like, sign me up! Even when Sandra falls from a tree while trying to score some drugs that had earlier been thrown out the window, the pale makeup designed to make her look sick merely achieves the effect of a better-than-average-looking goth chick. But what's this? As a post-fall Sandra examines herself in the mirror, she discovers...split ends! The horror! See how low she's sunk? It's time to quit drinking for real now!

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. 28 Days is probably going to make a ton of money, for three simple reasons. One: the overriding, albeit superficial, theme of girl, you gotta dump that no-good man of yours! Two: there are ample silly bits and goofy moments to appease those who don't care to be lectured on the nature of addiction. And three: as ridiculous as it all is (how seriously can you take a rehab program in which the ultimate test of sobriety is the ability to persuade a horse to bend its knee and display the bottom of its hoof?), it's somehow eminently watchable. As Gwen, Bullock offers yet another variation of her standard lovable-flake persona, a screenwriter (although no evidence of such is given until about two-thirds of the way through the movie) who appears to be drunk 24-7. Along with her equally flaky boyfriend, Jasper, she seems to spend her days dancing, drinking and having sex. That is, until said behavior makes her late for her sister's wedding and subsequently causes her to fall into the cake. Desperate to make amends, she hijacks a limo, searches in vain for a cake store, then drives into a house.

Flash forward. In lieu of jail, Gwen finds herself at Serenity Glen, a rehab facility in western North Carolina that apparently is a mere cab ride away from New York (it's best not to question the film's reality). Stripped of her cell phone, Vicodin and eyelash-curler, Gwen is made to attend lectures with titles like "Are you a blackout drunk, or don't you remember?" and "How many brain cells did I kill today?" and forced to room with teen delinquent Andrea (Azura Skye), who likes to eat candy and watch soap operas. Naturally, the place is teeming with lovable eccentrics, including Eddie (Viggo Mortensen, looking normal for once), a good-ol'-boy athlete who's addicted to sex; Daniel (Mario Cuomo lookalike Reni Santoni), an alcoholic doctor who bears a throat scar from an unfortunate self-attempted stomach pump; Loudon Wainwright III, as himself, singing whimsical and tragic folk ditties about drunkenness that will unfortunately be long-forgotten come next year's Oscars; and Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk), a gay German dancer (i.e., comic relief) who would be only slightly less convincing if portrayed by Dana Carvey in a bad wig, but will undoubtedly bring the house down in theaters across the heartland (after all, plenty of people still seem to think Saturday Night Live is funny).

Gwen is all set to do anything she can to either break out or, at the very least, subvert every single rule in the house, but things change when she bums a cigarette from a reformed druggie named Cornell (Steve Buscemi, surprisingly playing the straight man here). When Cornell turns out to be her counselor and he challenges her to remain sober, backed up by a threat to send her to jail otherwise, Gwen decides to tough it out simply to prove him wrong. And thus the healing begins. Through a series of comic misadventures, Gwen learns to share her feelings, calm down every once in a while, sincerely apologize to her sister (Elizabeth Perkins) and confront her past, which appears in the form of vignettes shot mostly on digital video but occasionally in black and white. How very new millennium.

Director Betty Thomas has honed her skills mixing humor with a touch of pathos in such films as Private Parts and The Brady Bunch Movie, and the result here is no less effective, just a lot less believable. A token tragedy is inserted just to leaven the humor, but it happens to the most obviously tragic character and involves that person suddenly displaying a problem other than the one that has been established. Additionally, the irony of all the characters turning to cigarettes as a substitute addiction is noted by the filmmakers, but never commented on. Is this really a preferable habit? Or is self-destructive addiction acceptable just as long as you behave yourself in public? And although drunken boyfriend Jasper is obviously an accessory to Gwen's drunkenness, couldn't she be a little more understanding of him? After all, he never forces her to do anything, and his problem is more or less the same as hers.

Ah, well. It's not like guy movies are any more realistic; just wait until Sylvester Stallone's rehab movie D-Tox comes out in the fall. A realistic depiction of rehab would inevitably be more critically acclaimed, but it would also be a major downer (see Michael Keaton's Clean and Sober for a taste of this). Audiences don't tend to react well to sheer, unbridled suffering. But a character beating tough odds and striking a blow for sisterhood? That they'll pay to see. 28 Days may be escapism masquerading as infotainment, but as the former, it does its job well. And as sunny as the rehab facility is made to look, perhaps audience members will be discouraged from attending by the fact that no sex or romance is permitted with other inmates. Even in the unlikely event that they do look like Sandra Bullock.

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Luke Y. Thompson