Featuring Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side, Miss Congeniality, Speed, Forces of Nature, Gravity), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy), Dominic West (Chicago, John Carter, A Christmas Carol), and Alan Tudyk (Firelfy, Serenity, I, Robot), 28 Days is about how Gwen Cummings, a newspaper columnist, who is court ordered to enter rehabilitation for alcoholism. According to the Future of Palm Beach‘s article, “Fact vs. Fiction: The Representation of Substance Abuse in Film“:
No two drug abuse or addiction stories are the same in real life or on film for that matter. While there may be some common features of the addiction experience, such as the spiraling out-of-control effect of drugs, each story of addiction illuminates a different facet of this illness. Film portrayals of alcohol and other drug consumption provide insight into how society perceives these substances and copes with these disorders.
Films invite audiences to be transported into their storylines. However, when it comes to favorable portrayals of alcohol and other drug abuse on the silver screen, audiences are best advised to exercise caution; however glamorous or exciting the use of alcohol or illicit substances may appear on film, drugs always feature a dark side. Some films explore this dark side, whether to tell a story of hope or a tale of tragedy. An exploration of representations of alcohol and other drug abuse on film opens a dialogue on this important personal and public health topic, and it can help moviegoers to sharpen the lens through which they view movies in the addiction genre. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the read.
Film Portrayals of Alcoholism
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in 2012, approximately 17 million adult Americans (7.2 percent of the population) had an alcohol use disorder (11.2 million males and 5.7 million females). Alcoholism does not discriminate based on age, and adolescents are surely not exempt. In 2012, approximately 855,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 suffered from alcohol use disorder.
Self-diagnosis of alcohol abuse disorder is advisable to the extent it motivates one to seek professional help, which is always recommendable. NIAAA provides some useful self-diagnostic questions to consider whether you or a loved one may have alcohol abuse disorder.
Interestingly, these questions include some of the hallmarks of alcohol abuse and addiction that are often seen on screen. As NIAAA sets forth, these diagnostic questions include whether the drinker:
- Has a desire to quit drinking but finds he cannot stop
- Experiences a craving, urge, or serious need to drink
- Finds that drinking interferes with her life, even making her depressed, but still she continues to drink
- Feels he needs to drink more, whatever the consequences, in order to get the same effects as earlier days
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, aware of the potential influence of film portrayals on actual alcohol abuse, discusses a unique study conducted at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Dutch researchers surveyed 159 college students (84 male and 75 female) and showed them eight movie clips with positive and negative portrayals of alcohol consumption (a control group was shown clips with no alcohol consumption).
The Dutch study is unique in that it focused on examining the immediate effect of these film portrayals on the study participants. Researchers focused on two key elements: the degree to which the college participants were transported into the storyline and the participants’ overall feeling (positive or negative) about the storyline. The researchers found that the portrayals of alcohol did have an immediate impact on the participants’ thinking.
The Dutch researchers concluded that films that depicted alcohol consumption, whether in a positive or negative light, emotionally drew in participants more than the movie clips that did not feature alcohol consumption. Further, students became more involved, or transported, into storylines with a negative portrayal of alcohol consumption. Researchers also found that overall, films that portrayed alcohol in a positive light received a positive rating from the students.
One of the authors of this study pointed to alcohol product placement in movies as an important factor influencing students. Alcohol advertising in films is often subtle and may not even consciously register in a viewer’s awareness. For this reason, alcohol product placements in movies can be an extremely effective marketing tool for alcohol manufacturers. According to a professor of psychopathology at Radboud University, alcohol features in 80 to 95 percent of movie storylines, and it is usually depicted in a positive light. The danger is that young moviegoers are particularly vulnerable to influence, and, as the Dutch study supports, the positive portrayal of alcohol in film can lead to positive associations with alcohol in real life.
In view of the Dutch study’s finding that participants were especially drawn into films with a negative representation of alcohol use, it is no surprise that American films of this ilk are among the most popular. Three films dominate any movie list about the negatives of alcohol abuse: Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and 28 Days (2000). Each film offers an insightful angle on the dark side of alcohol addiction.
The onscreen life of the alcoholic Gwen Cummings (played by Sandra Bullock) has an air of real-life believability. As Roger Ebert notes, the movie may even serve a cautionary tale for youth (and with its PG-13 rating, youth can actually see it). From a sociological standpoint, one of the best elements of the film is that it incorporates alternative sentencing into the storyline. After crashing a limousine into a house (the limousine hired for her sister’s wedding no less), a judge allows Gwen to attend 28 days of rehab in lieu of a jail sentence. Attending rehab launches Gwen’s story of recovery and showcases the addiction of her fellow rehab-mates.
A subplot includes Gwen having a romantic relationship with a baseball player turned substance abuser. However inadvisable the practice, the film accurately demonstrates how in real life a recovering addict, looking for a calm port in what feels like the storm, may become romantically involved with another rehab resident.
Through flashbacks, the film touches on Gwen’s family tree to offer a potential root cause of her addiction. Gwen’s mother experienced addiction. In real life, Gwen would be far from alone. In America, 76 million people (approximately 43 percent of the population) face alcoholism in their family. Nearly one in five adult Americans (18 percent) reside with an alcoholic while growing up. This exposure can be a key element either in developing alcoholism (and hereditary genes may be a factor), or other disorders such as codependency.
As a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) film review points out, 28 Days does tend to play into common portrayals of alcoholism – drunk driving, denial, rehab, and awakening to sobriety through a 12-step program. But however trite these story elements may seem, it is important for films to keep mapping out the problems of alcoholism for audience members, especially young ones. The films Days of Wine and Roses and Leaving Las Vegas, for instance, are not suitable for adolescents because the stress of the characters in these films works to induce stress in the audience. Yet, in 28 Days, the general affability of Sandra Bullock, and the film’s predictable bend to a happy ending, is palatable for both mature and immature movie members.
Additionally, according to Chapters Capristrano‘s article, “Alternative Depictions Of Addiction In Film: 28 Days“:
While many modern depictions of abuse, addiction, and alcoholism are reserved, nuanced, and informed, some simply aren’t. For one reason or another, some films approach addiction or substance abuse from a comedic perspective; while there’s nothing wrong with intelligent, well written humor, if it misses its mark it can come off as ill-informed and in poor taste. 28 Days, directed by Betty Thomas, is a film that in trying to make light of alcoholism and addiction trivializes the issue. While the intent of the film surely wasn’t to minimize and down play the severity of addiction, 28 Days still depicts rehab and addiction as lighthearted and superficial experiences.
The film begins with Bullock’s character, Gwen Cummings crashing her own sisters wedding while extremely drunk. She steals the limousine outside and crashes it into a building. As punishment, she must choose between rehab or jail. She opts to spend 28 days in rehab, and thus begins her journey of self discovery. Along the way, she is tempted again and again, only to overcome her past addiction with the help of her fellow addicts. She falls in love with another addict, only to throw both her current and past relationships into turmoil when a confrontation between the two men turns violent. After rehab, they meet again, supposedly continuing there relationship after the film ends.
Where the film misfires is in its depiction of many of the practices in rehab and recovery. Gwen mocks the other characters when they participate in group therapy or meditation. Their practices are made to look foolish to the viewer as well, as we are experiencing rehab through Gwen’s eyes. Her experiences when hitting rock bottom are also made to appear funny and lighthearted, but due to a combination of awkward writing and poor execution, the events seem like pratfalls from an old silent film, only with none of the humor. Instead, we see Gwen as an almost comedic element rather than an actual character we can align our perspectives and empathy with. It’s also difficult to believe her as a character when she shows little to no remorse for her actions and belittles those that do. The rehab sequences are often awkward and portrayed with an apparent cutting bias, only to shift completely by the end of the film to a pious yet hypocritical stance that rehab is a wonderful experience, despite displaying the contrary to us for the entire film.
While 28 Days may be attempting to display the inner-workings of rehab, and how even the most severe addictions can be helped, it comes off as an insincere Cinderella story. Gwen, despite her addiction, is seemingly perfect and unfazed by virtually everything she experiences. Real and effective rehab can be difficult, but by the end, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, and how we can improve ourselves and the world around us. Rehab is a fantastic and rewarding experience, yet the world of film still seems unable to approach the concept correctly. That may be due in part to the fact rehab is different for everyone, and no one character can embody the experience entirely. Hollywood also tends to aggrandize everything. 28 Days is to rehab what Die Hard is to the average workday. Rehab is a wonderful thing, and fiction can sometimes paint the wrong picture for those considering it.
According to Roger Ebert:
Every drunk considers himself a special case, unique, an exception to the rules. Odd, since for the practicing alcoholic, daily life is mostly unchanging, an attempt to negotiate daily responsibilities while drinking enough but not too much. When this attempt fails, as it often does, it results in events that the drunk thinks make him colorful. True variety comes only with sobriety. Plus, now he can remember it.
This is the lesson learned by Gwen Cummings, the character played by Sandra Bullock in “28 Days.” As the story opens, her life is either wild and crazy or confused and sad, depending on where you stand. She parties all night with her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West). After the clubs, the drinks, the designer drugs, they commence what may turn out to be sex, if they can stay awake long enough. Then a candle starts a fire, which they extinguish with champagne. What a ball.
In the morning, Gwen’s day begins with a pass at the refrigerator so smooth and practiced she hardly seems to even open it while extracting a cold beer. Gwen is an accident waiting to happen–to herself or innocent bystanders. Her victim is her sister Lily (Elizabeth Perkins). “Gwen, you make it impossible to love you,” Lily says when she arrives late at the church for Lily’s wedding. At the reception, Gwen delivers an insulting toast, knocks over the cake while dancing, steals a limousine to go buy another cake and crashes it into a house. Not a good day.
Cut to Serenity Glen, where Gwen has been sentenced to 28 days of rehab in lieu of jail time. The PA system makes a running commentary out of “MASH”-style announcements. The patients do a lot of peppy group singing (too much, if you ask me). “I don’t have a health problem,” Gwen protests. “I play Ultimate Frisbee twice a week.” The patients include the usual cuckoo’s nest of colorful characters, although they’re a little more plausible than in most inmate populations. We meet Daniel (Reni Santoni), a doctor who pumped his own stomach to control his drinking and wound up giving himself an emergency tracheotomy. Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk), prissy and critical, a dancer and coke addict. And Andrea (Azura Skye), Gwen’s teenage roommate.
Gwen’s counselor is Cornell, played by Steve Buscemi, who inspires a grin when we see him in a movie because he’s usually good for strange scenes and dialogue. Not this time; he plays the role straight, revealing toughness and a certain weary experience, as if all of Gwen’s cherished kookiness is for him a very, very old joke. There’s a nice scene where she says exactly the wrong things to him before discovering he’s her counselor.
Another fellow patient is Eddie Boone (Viggo Mortensen), a baseball pitcher with a substance abuse problem. Of course they begin a tentative, unstated courtship. Jasper, on weekend visits, misunderstands (“Where are all the celebrities?” he asks on his first arrival, looking around for Elizabeth Taylor). Of course there is a fight. This subplot is predictable, but made perceptive because Gwen and Eddie illustrate the lifeboat mentality in which sailors on the ship of rehab have only each other to cling to.
The movie was written by Susannah Grant, who also wrote Julia Roberts’ hit film “Erin Brockovich.” I differed with “Erin” for the same reason I like “28 Days”: the tone of the central character. I found that Roberts, enormously likable although she is, upstaged the material in “Erin Brockovich” by unwise costume choices and scenes that were too obviously intended as showcases. Bullock brings a kind of ground-level vulnerability to “28 Days” that doesn’t make her into a victim but simply into one more suitable case for treatment. Bullock, like Roberts, is likable, but in “28 Days” at least that’s not the point.