Smashed - SideReel Review
If you’re trying to convince your audience that the lead character of your movie has a serious drinking problem, showing her waking up in a pool of her own urine and then swigging a beer while taking her morning shower isn’t a bad way to go. This is how director and co-screenwriter James Ponsoldt introduces us to Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in his film Smashed; it’s a credit to Winstead’s considerable charm and gifts as an actress that despite this, she manages to make Kate someone we want to know and come to like, even though the movie doesn’t pull any punches about the extent of her alcoholism or how hard her road to sobriety turns out to be. Winstead and the rest of the cast carry a film that sometimes slides from common truths into cliches, but overall they make Smashed a solid drama (with some fine moments of comedy) that deals with a difficult subject honestly.
Kate Hannah is a twentysomething first-grade teacher who is smart, charming, and lovely, but also drinks far too much. Her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) is a freelance writer and also an alcoholic, but her decisions tend to be even worse than his under the influence, typified by a scene in which she gives a stranger at the bar a ride home, only to end up smoking crack and waking up the next day in a homeless camp. One morning, after fending off her hangover with a slug of whiskey, Kate vomits in front of her class, and when one of the kids asks if she’s pregnant, Kate says yes rather than tell them the truth. Ms. Barnes (Megan Mullally), the school’s principal, is thrilled that Kate is expecting and lets her go home for the day, but Dave Davies (Nick Offerman), the vice principal who sits in for her, saw her drinking in her car and warns her of the dangers of using alcohol while pregnant. Dave soon learns the truth about Kate’s problem and shares a secret of his own -- he’s been clean and sober for nine years after beating an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, and he offers to take her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting if she’s interested. Kate is wary but accepts, and begins the program with the help of her sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer), who gave up booze to make baked goods. The longer Kate goes without alcohol, the stronger and more certain she feels, but it also makes the other problems in her life unavoidable -- particularly the flaws in her relationships with Charlie, who is still drinking heavily, and her mother Rochelle (Mary Kay Place), herself an alcoholic who doesn’t put much stock in sobriety.
In its opening reels, Smashed plays like a comedy about a gal who parties a bit too hard before we realize just how deeply Kate’s drinking controls her life, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a splendid job of capturing the character’s highs and lows. Even at her worst, she gives Kate a core of decency that makes her worth following as both alcohol and sobriety make her life difficult, and she also projects a sense of vulnerability despite her determination to live a better life. Aaron Paul doesn’t get nearly as much to work with as Charlie, but he manages to elevate the material, turning what could have been a simple drunken doofus into something deeper and more complicated. Nick Offerman is splendid as Dave, underplaying his own struggles while giving the character unexpected warmth, and he’s hilarious in a scene when he declares his affection for Kate in a wildly inappropriate manner. And Mary Kay Place is powerful enough in her small role as Kate’s mom that it’s hard not to wish they’d made more of her. While Octavia Spencer fares well as Jenny, her character points to the film’s biggest flaw -- Jenny, like most of her fellow recovering alcoholics in the picture, spends a lot of time talking in recovery speak, and for every moment when she says something honest and perceptive about the road to sobriety, there’s another when she spouts some homily that we’ve heard dozens of times before about working the steps or the hard fall into alcohol and abuse.
Director James Ponsoldt has given the film a realistic, lived-in look and feel, and he’s drawn some splendid performances from a cast who give even the most hackneyed moments life and gravity. He also has the good sense not to let this story overstay its welcome, and not a second of its 85 minutes feels wasted. But Smashed is good enough that its flaws seem especially bothersome, especially when they cut so close to its thematic core; it’s a movie that’s very good but prevents itself from crossing into something great, though it’s still well worth your time and attention.