Monday, April 17, 2000

Feh Brew Airy Daze

An anniversary of a half of a 28 day trip that has now lasted well over eleven years...

In the movie business they say each of us has a role we were born to play. I of course was lucky enough to find my role at a fairly early age- that hidden Lama, the Buddhist boy wonder, Bobby Hill from TV's animated King of the Hill. (I hope all of you were able to catch the episode of the series that far and away was the finest half hour of television to be seen anywhere this season.)

In the search for her ultimate role, Sandra Bullock hasn't quite been so fortunate. Up to this point nearly all of her roles have fallen into two categories- the naturally likable everygirl (Speed, While You Were Sleeping, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway); or the wacky likable anti-everygirl (Thing Called Love, Forces of Nature, Two if By Sea). Judging by her appearances on the talk show circuit, Bullock is quite good at playing these two parts of herself.

That's what makes her performance in her latest film, 28 Days so effective. She is naturally playing the same role as we've come to expect, yet this time there is an adept edge, as opposed to a written or acted quirk. In other words her character in the movie, Gwen, isn't so much a character as she is a person. The movie begins with Gwen, because of her behavior, being told by her sister that she is "impossible to love." It is an early indication that this role will somehow go against the typical Sandra Bullock role.

I didn't expect to like 28 Days much judging from the commercials previewing the movie. It looked like a light version of Days of Wine and Roses or Less Than Zero. The treatment of alcohol abuse in the movies is seldom entertaining because the disease itself isn't entertaining. Perhaps the hardest part to play is a drunk. And that Bullock succeeds says much about how well the movie works. It's interesting to compare this movie with an earlier anti-booze themed film that she made in 1992 called When The Party is Over. Her growth as an actress is quite evident at the same time she demonstrates the effort and ability to shed the baggage associated with becoming a star and returning to her real roots of acting.

A little semi-related background: Years back my boss gave me the option of supervising the department's problem employee. Somewhat reluctantly I accepted the assignment but with the guarantee that I could later change my mind. Two weeks into the assignment I was at my wit's end. Every day was a challenge with this person. Though she was obviously a very bright and talented individual, she was, shall we say, less than motivated. After another not on time excuse filled confrontation start to a day, I went from her desk straight to my boss' office. I told my boss I wanted out. She looked at me, settled me down with a few words and offered this bit of wisdom: "You can back out if you want to but if you succeed with her, and can help her turn herself around, there is nothing you will achieve here that will give you more of a sense of accomplishment."

So for the next two years I worked with this person. For every step forward she took two steps back. To show our belief in her we tried to give her every opportunity we could. We offered to pay for further schooling for her. When I gave her more responsibility she excelled; but I couldn't trust her to get her more mundane daily assignments done so I couldn't really justify, nor trust, giving her more responsibility.

I've never met a more angry person. Her mother died just as my colleague was becoming a teenager. Her father was abusive. Her brother had gotten into trouble with the law and her sister had a drug problem. I tried to emphasize how remarkable I thought it was that she was doing as well as she was coming from where she had been. But the words never seemed to take. She never could accept that where she had been didn't have to doom her to where she could go.

Hard as I worked with her I came to realize that as long as she held on to her anger and didn't take the opportunity to change the things she had control of rather than dwell on being a victim of where she'd come from, we weren't going to get anywhere. One day she showed me something she hadn't shown anyone else. It was a hand scribbled letter to a grade school teacher written by her mother. The thoughts expressed were nearly identical to the ones I had shared in her most recent performance review. Her mother had written with the proud words of a parent, that her daughter had so much to offer if only she learned how to apply and believe in herself.

When I left the department we stayed in touch until a few years back when she literally disappeared. I learned that she had been fired, her home phone disconnected. I had someone call her family for me and we found out the family hadn't heard from her in over a year. I stopped over at her place and found a porch full of old mail and yellowing unread newspapers.

Last week, almost by accident I happened to see her name on the Washington County Attorney's web site. She had been charged last December with passing a forged check and driving after her license had been suspended. My first reaction was almost one of relief after long fearing the worst- at least she was still alive. I was saddened however to see that she had gotten herself into serious trouble.

Thus she was on my mind while watching 28 Days. The movie really isn't about alcoholism. It's about how hard life is. We all have moments of pain and hurt. We all have our hearts broken and have to deal with grief. Alcohol is but one choice for avoidance and not feeling. As the movie so effectively points out many of us would rather live in a dream than in life itself. In dreams things happen by chance, not by choice.

The movie begins with Bullock after a night of partying with her boyfriend nearly setting their apartment on fire. As she awakes the next day she realizes she is late for her sister's wedding. In a haze she scrambles to get there. Once arriving she manages to ruin the day and in the process in a stupor driving into a porch while trying to replace the wedding cake she has destroyed.

Sentenced to 28 days in rehab it is at this point the movie straddles the fine line of cliches we come to expect from any movie about alcohol abuse. There is the denial, the anger, the out of control behavior and the acceptance that a problem exists. But the movie never gets preachy about its subject and the characters (with fine supporting performances from Elizabeth Perkins, Azura Skye, Dominic West, and Steve Buscemi) seem like real people. Even when we get the inevitable tragedy that emphasizes the forced warning message of substance abuse, the movie has established enough credibility that the whole thing continues to work.

With out of focus camera shots and claustrophobic sound use, director Betty Thomas does a good subtle job showing the fuzziness and the clanking inner noise that comes from being under the influence. Bullock with the use of her body, specifically her eyes, shows the growth from an out of control drunk to clear headed sobriety. We see that Gwen may or may not succeed just like any other alcoholic. We also see that her chances of succeeding increase with her acceptance that there is a problem and that she can change the outcome with the power of that simple acknowledgment.

Her skepticism of the traditional therapeutic process lessens as she sees that being a victim isn't unique. The rehab center uses hokey group chants, prayers, and support to deliver the message that all who are there share a lot in common. Typical of what makes this movie work: As one patient leaves a staff person is heard to say, "I hope he makes it." Another patient replies, "Statistically only 3 out of 10 of us will make it therefore it is better for the rest of us if he doesn't make it."

Gwen is a writer. She justifies her drinking to her counselor by saying, "I'm a writer. I drink. That's what we do." What the movie shows is that no matter the drug of choice we all would rather not have to face life's demons. The tried and true alternative is to take a baby steps, one day at a time approach to the agony. This may not be any easier than it is an actual choice. Alcoholics have a problem that the ultimate end means death. It isn't that they aren't aware of this, it is that they really don't care. The message 28 Days surprisingly poignantly delivers is that it is, at heart, quite empowering to make the choice to care.

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