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Memphis Flyer Bottoms Up

Sandra Bullock hits the bottle in '28 Days.'

By Susan Ellis

MAY 1, 2000:  There she is in Premiere magazine to declare that she is not the girl next door anymore. Of course, being the girl next door has netted Sandra Bullock millions, but it's also cornered her into a growing-more-wearisome-by-the-film slump --Forces of Nature, Hope Floats, Practical Magic. So to shout to the world her newfound oomph, she appears dripping wet, with her shirt on sideways, accompanied by some fruit and a couple of bare-chested he-honeys.

Further, to prove that she's ready for the meatier roles, she stars in 28 Days, in which she plays -- insert dramatic music here -- an alcoholic.

But, damn, if she isn't the cutest, most rosy-cheeked alcoholic there is. We should all look so good, with or without the substance abuse. She is the girl next door who likes to booze it up.

Bullock's character, Gwen, is a New York writer, whose long nights of partying turn into dreamy segues for hungover mornings. She's just having fun and keeping up with her friends. She seems productive enough, and her boyfriend Jasper (Dominic West) is enchanted by her spiritedness. Her sister Lily (Elizabeth Perkins), however, has another opinion. "You make it impossible to love you," Lily says to Gwen, after she turns up late and fully buzzed for her sister's wedding. And this is before Gwen ruins the wedding cake, steals the newlywed's limo, and crashes said limo into a house.

Those hijinks land Gwen a DUI and three options. She can go to jail (no way), or to a rehab in the city (too yucky), or to a treatment center in the country (perhaps she'll see somebody famous and land a writing gig). As soon as her cab pulls up for her 28 days at Serenity Glen, she spots its motto "body, mind, spirit," and is gagging on her city-girl cynicism. In fact, the whole place makes her skin crawl: the touchy-feely sayings, the shared emotions, the busy work. Gwen has nothing in common with the losers such as the lonely teen heroin addict or the white-trashy older women with the Jerry Springer life or the lipless foreigner who can't express himself or the former doctor who had to perform his own trache when his experimenting went awry. Those people are losers with problems. She, on the other hand, just knows how to have a good time.

So Gwen challenges the system and challenges it some more, rolling her eyes and earning the wrath of fellow rehabers and the distrust of her caregivers. Then, she lands literally on her ass, which makes her consider what she's been doing to herself and to others. She begins to shape up and play nice, without really thinking about how she lives and what it is about her that led her to this sort of place.

For Bullock, Gwen's struggles are easy, almost too easy for someone going through a painful program of self-awareness. Gwen is sick and she gets better -- these 12 steps are sure ones. Bullock, who seems ready and able to get down and dirty with this character, is never really allowed to. While she is committed to ditching her good-girl image, the filmmakers -- director Betty Thomas and screenwriter Susannah Grant (who penned the hit Erin Brockovich) -- are clearly willing to go only so far. There is a lot of tweaking here, at the hokeyness of therapy in particular, and more than one lesson that has to be learned. It is all well-meaning in a tepid sort of way and not at all daring for a good girl like Bullock who so desperately wants to be bad.

Call it The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, India-style. Madhur Jaffrey stars as the title character in the Merchant-Ivory film Cotton Mary, set in 1950s post-colonial India.

As the film begins, Mary is praying and scolding her niece for her vanity and devotion to things other than God. But the divide between what she says and what she thinks is revealed when she meets an Englishwoman named Lily (Greta Scacchi) at the hospital at which Mary works.

Lily has given birth to her daughter prematurely and is unable to nurse. Mary boasts that she is half-English herself and vows to watch over the baby she deems "God's child." Mary keeps her word by secretly taking the baby to her invalid sister who is a wet nurse at an alms house. She becomes indispensable to Lily and is soon invited into Lily's home to watch over the baby. Mary's pride takes over her devotion to God and madness sneaks into thoughts as she begins to take over the Englishwoman's home. She snipes at Lily's loyal valet, pours poison into employers' ears about him, and plants well-veiled threats at the couple's older daughter. All the while, Lily is too overwhelmed by her sick baby and her roving and unsupportive husband to recognize what is going on. Soon enough, however, Mary will make plain how delusional she's become.

Nuzzled within the trademark Merchant-Ivory scenes of lush cinematography, Mary's crisis serves as a hysterical example of a country's people feeling around to find an identity. Is it back to their roots, or should they stick to those gentile lessons that were brought over when the English arrived? The filmmakers don't press an answer really in this rather small-scale and unassuming film; they just show those struggling to figure it out themselves.

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