The Film: Smashed (2012)
The Principles: James Ponsoldt (writer/director), Susan Burke (writer), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
The Premise: Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Paul) are a young married couple whose entire lives seem to be a series of drinks. Go to the bar and get drunk at night, finish whatever open beers are scattered around the house when you wake up the next morning, and, naturally, don’t forget to take a swig or two from the flask you keep in the car before you go into work. As Kate continues making progressively worse decisions, both personally and professionally, she realizes that the alcohol-centered existence she has built with her husband has become a destructive one, and she must do whatever it takes to get her life on track.
Is it good? Very. I sought out Smashed based on cast alone, and had only surface-level knowledge of the plot going into it. So when the Sony Picture Classics logo scribbled over the screen and a jingly acoustic guitar started strumming, my indie-quirk shields went up a bit. But just as I begin to worry that I may have gotten myself involved in some sort of stylish fluff-piece about a pair of heavy-drinking kids that escaped from the set of Garden State, James Ponsoldt has his protagonist smoke crack and pass out under a highway within the first ten minutes of the film. Clearly he was going a bit heavier than my initial silly concerns may have indicated. What I wound up with was a tremendous character study of a woman who must learn the hard way that cutting out the drinks may, in fact, be the least difficult part of battling alcoholism.
One of the factors that elevates Smashed from mediocre to great is Ponsoldt and Burke’s decision to eschew the melodrama and hysterics that often overtake these types of stories in favor of authenticity. Kate isn’t forced to get sober because her kids are going to be taken away; she isn’t being haunted by visions of an elderly woman she mowed down on a drunken joyride home from the bodega. Though Kate’s frustrations may boil over from time to time when dealing with her husband, the turmoil and struggles in Smashed are all internal. Her desire to clean up comes purely from within, as she slowly realizes that when your life has been poisoned by alcoholism, a marriage built on this shared vice is poison as well. Problem is, Kate’s husband isn’t exactly on board with the whole getting-sober thing. Aaron Paul manages to do a lot with a little here; despite clearly holding some resentment towards her decision to disavow the only thing that has ever really brought them together, there is no question Charlie loves his wife. Beneath his outward displays of apathy towards Kate’s rehabilitation, there is a spark in Paul’s eye, an energy he carries throughout the film. Deep down, Charlie wants to understand his wife’s struggles, even though his own alcoholism is preventing him from doing so.
The biggest reason to see Smashed, though, is one Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Well-loved by the geek community for her turn as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as well as fun roles in other genre-fare such as Death Proof and Black Christmas, Winstead ups the ante considerably with an award-worthy performance that runs the gamut from hilarious to heart-wrenching. She brings nuance and heart to Kate that I’m not sure existed on the page, and dives right into the less glamorous aspects of the role with gusto. She is the heart and soul of the film in every way, and one can only hope we continue to see more and more of her.
There’s a scene in which, attending her first AA meeting, Kate must introduce herself to the group. She explains:
“I don’t know if I’m an alcoholic. I just drink. I drink a lot. I’ve always drank a lot, everyone I know drinks a lot, so I never really thought it was a problem. But lately it kinda seems like it is.”
This is the scene in which the movie got its hooks in me, as I suspect it will other 20 and 30-somethings who would never even dream of the word “alcoholic,” despite many of them consuming more drinks than some small countries on a nightly basis. There’s a dressed-down quality to the language in the film, and the characters seem (perhaps deliberately) a bit underwritten. This works in the film’s favor, though, by giving almost any viewer an angle to latch on and identify with, whether it’s the dangers of co-dependency, the not-always-good realization that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, the ramifications of letting your personal life affect your work, or the sadness that accompanies the realization that even though you love someone dearly, you may be a better person without them.
Is it worth a look? Without a doubt. I mean, if you’re in the mood for something uplifting and lighthearted, you may want to come back to this another day. But it is absolutely worth seeing, for Winstead’s performance, if nothing else.
Random anecdotes: Won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize in Independent Film Producing at Sundance.
Winstead and Paul went to a bar and got “smashed” together as a way of getting into their characters.
Winstead also attended AA meetings in preparation for the role.
Cinematic soulmates: Leaving Las Vegas, The Lost Weekend, Up in the Air