Saturday, December 08, 2012
Smashed is a movie about addiction that doesn’t follow a predictable arc or aim to be redemptive. The script by director James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke instead makes a more difficult choice; Ponsoldt and Burke are less interested in the broad humiliations of drunkenness than they are in the cold reality of new sobriety, and what that sobriety can do to one’s relationships. Elementary school teacher Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) enjoys a boozy home life with her good-natured husband Charlie (Aaron Paul). Kate is just beginning to think about the toll her life is taking on her when an incident in front of her class and a chance encounter outside a bar bring her issues to the forefront. Charlie is content to think that they can “chill out” on their drinking and get by, but Kate’s coworker (Nick Offerman) takes her to an AA meeting and the honesty required by the 12-step culture forces Kate to take a hard look at her life. Smashed is the only cinematic treatment of alcoholism I’m aware of that acknowledges sobriety isn’t a magic bullet for life’s problems.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives one of the best performances of the year as Kate, a woman whose frightened eyes in the opening scenes (as she drinks beer in the shower before school) are gone by her climactic speech. Winstead and the filmmakers never come close to trying to romanticize Kate’s drunkenness; after an evening of drinking Kate is a loud, overbearing mess who can’t control her bodily functions. Yet Winstead also makes Kate someone worth saving, a woman whose disposition towards alcohol is a function of the way her mother (Mary Kay Place in a brave cameo) reflexively thinks a Bloody Mary would enhance any situation. Smashed is observant and honest enough to portray AA meetings as things where life-changing revelations don’t happen on a routine basis, indeed I’m not sure I even knew before this movie that meetings have built-in breaks. But the heart of the movie is in the relationship between Kate and Charlie, a man who hasn’t come to grips yet with the extent to which alcohol is the central dynamic in his marriage. Unlike his Breaking Bad character, Paul’s Charlie is a man in the grips of something he doesn’t understand who can’t see the consequences; his attempt to finally do right by Kate is all the more tragic for being too late. A scene between Kate and her sponsor (Octavia Spencer) hits at the essential truth of Smashed: Life is difficult. Smashed is a movie big-hearted enough not to run away from that fact.