James Ponsoldt’s Smashed is a mixed bag of a movie. In some ways — perhaps too many ways — it’s your basic addiction-and-recovery tale, with all that implies. It definitely relies on the movie playbook idea that a few trips to Alcoholics Anonymous will turn an alcoholic’s life around with minimum relapse. Anyone who’s watched alcoholism in an up-close-and-personal manner knows that is, to put it bluntly, pretty much bullshit. We’ve already gotten this routine once this year with Kelly Reilly’s character in the overpraised Flight. Oh, it’s handled better here — and with an hour less running time, too — but there’s still something a little too easy about it all. However, one thing that is not in the least easy or false is the stunning performance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, an actress I know I’ve seen before, but who never really registered until now. The picture is virtually a “must-see” if only for her performance.
Winstead plays Kate Hannah, an elementary school teacher — a woman just sliding from the tentative realm of “functional alcoholic” and into the abyss of out of control. Kate’s married to Charlie (Aaron Paul), a quasimusic critic with a privileged background and apparently family money. He, too, is a drinker — and a hard one — but it neither impacts him, nor is he as overtly out of control. (He seems more inclined to just nod off in a chair.) As the film opens, Kate is just waking up — having wet the bed — and prepping herself for a day at school — in part by finishing last night’s beer, and then drinking from her hip flask in the parking lot. This is shortly followed by her giving an altogether embarrassingly animated (obviously drunken to anyone who’s watched this in real life) performance to her class — followed by throwing up in front of the students — which is when we start to see that her “functional” days are rapidly disappearing. That she quickly grasps at the excuse of morning sickness when a student asks if she’s pregnant is a brilliant glimpse inside the alcoholic mind. That this can only end badly is in the future, so why bother about it?
Much of the film does show this kind of insight, and Winstead’s performance always does. The scene of her getting into a fight with a convenience store clerk over buying alcohol after hours is terrifying in the precision of its reality, though it perhaps pales in comparison to her relapse scene where her behavior even horrifies her hard-drinking husband. Neither of these scenes feels like she is acting. Both are somewhere beyond uncomfortable — in part because her audiences in both cases find themselves treating her like a dangerous animal whose attention they don’t want to draw. Again, if you’ve been that audience, the stamp of truth is apt to make you squirm. And you might want to take that into consideration when deciding whether to see this. It’s not pretty.
A lot of the film is built on the difficulty — maybe impossibility — of maintaining a relationship with an addict of any kind when only one partner is trying to be sober. (This is something the film pretty much sidesteps.) Then the film gets clumsy toward the end. The sudden leap of a year forward doesn’t really work, though the actual ending scene is effective and effectively painful.
There are quite a few things I don’t like about the movie. I found its soundtrack annoying and the handheld camerawork (presumably to convey Winstead’s unsteadiness) feels like a sop to an unfortunate modern trend. I don’t blame the filmmaker, but the poster certainly suggests something a lot more fun than you’re going to get. At the same time, I notice that the film posits itself as both a drama and a comedy, and apart from some of Octavia Spencer’s (playing Kate’s sponsor) wry observations about humanity, I’m left wondering where the comedy is. But then there’s Winstead — and she’s brilliant. Rated R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14