Film Review: Smashed

Knockout punch of a character study looks at what happens when the main thing a couple has in common is booze and one partner decides to clean up.

In selecting Mary Elizabeth Winstead for the lead in Smashed, writer-director James Ponsoldt (Off the Black) shrewdly hired an actor capable of a tour-de-force portrayal of alcoholic behavior: the manic highs, the shame-based lows, the lying and—sometimes—the struggles to quit, even the inevitable backsliding. Kate is a likeable and enterprising young woman, and as played by Winstead (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) also embodies the Jekyll-and-Hyde personality change of alcoholism; when under the influence, she will shoplift and urinate any old place like any wino.

Winstead admirably performs unadorned—without makeup, wearing serviceable and down-to-earth clothing. (The bit where Kate doesn’t bother to change the dress she’s slept in after a boozy night before going to work is one of those details that tells it all.). Kate is married to a good-looking but feckless music-writer husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul). They do have fun together, especially when tanked up on beer, whisky, or whatever is in their realistically disheveled house, with even more wild times when they hit the bars: singing karaoke, shooting pool, all against the backdrop of Los Angeles, used well but not obtrusively. It’s not the town of Homes of the Stars tours, but where real people actually live with taco shops, convenience stores and palm trees.

Kate is a second-grade teacher, ebullient and effective, bouncing around the classroom and working spelling lessons, the alphabet and the kids like a basketball court. But a snag disrupts all; she is so hung over that a heave-ho of vomit in front of her class blows her cover. Yet Smashed is full of surprises—school officials are not old meanies but gentle folks; they try to help and take Kate under their wing. A most empathetic Megan Mullally is her supportive school principal (at least until she learns the truth that Kate isn’t really pregnant, as she unwisely told her kids); a well-meaning, goofily awkward vice-principal is played by Mullally’s husband Nick Offerman, nine years sober and guessing at Kate’s booze problem (fairly easy, after he sees her taking a swig from a flask she keeps in her car).

Enter Alcoholics Anonymous, and that might be the end of this story, except that Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke are too sophisticated to frame Smashed as polemic, as a Days of Wine and Roses awakening of a couple, or a cautionary tale like Clean and Sober. AA is positively presented with meetings shown neither satirically nor as gospel. But even here the film has an ironic sideways take, particularly at some of AA’s strictures about rigid rule adherence. For Charlie it’s a cult he’s left out of, as Kate switches her loyalties to her sponsor, played with wise good humor by recent Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

A nifty comic turn by Mary Kay Place as Kate’s boozy mom, who as a single mother raised Kate under straitened circumstances, reminds the viewer about genetics and alcoholism, but mainly provides a bitterly funny bit where she complains that Kate’s dad abandoned them after going cold turkey and running off with a non-drinker. Sobriety doesn’t necessarily solve everything, as Kate says in a mini-monologue, with an honesty that makes Smashed unique. The film does employ the current tic of a “you decide,” unresolved ending (as in Your Sister’s Sister, A Separation and “The Sopranos”), but in this case, at least it’s in sync with the ambiguity surrounding a complicated topic.