Alcoholism kind of sneaks up on the heroine of Smashed. She never throws herself into drink to cope with depression or stardom or loneliness. She just goes about her routine of partying until she realizes that things have gone too far and have to change. The problem is, just because she recognizes the problem doesn’t mean her loved ones do.
Far from a typical tale of alcoholism, Smashed tells a very specific—and at times quite funny—story with rich characters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a superb, lovable performance that’s in turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Her character, Kate, possesses an honest self reflection when she’s not completely wasted, allowing her to rationally look back at her madness.
As the film begins, Kate wakes up to discover she’s wet the bed—not for the first time—and needs to hurry to work. She and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), party every night. It’s just what they do. It appears they enjoyed the college lifestyle so much that they let it carry on into their 30s. They go to clubs and concerts, down booze, bang around some croquet balls in the backyard, down more booze, make drunken love and eventually pass out. This hasn’t been an issue for Charlie, a freelance music journalist with wealthy parents, but Kate teaches first grade, where it’s generally frowned upon to show up hungover and vomit violently in front of your students. Rather than make up an easy excuse for throwing up, like the flu, Kate promptly answers yes when one of her students asks if she’s pregnant. Soon the whole school has heard there’s a baby on the way. The problem of what’s going to happen when she never gets bigger and gives birth is well, a problem that can be put off for a few months.
And that doesn’t quite convince Kate that she needs to stop drinking. Winstead plays drunk with the attitude of a petulant child and the insatiability of a horror monster. One scene showcases the film’s dark humor at its best: An already drunk Kate stumbles out of the house and to her local convenience store at 2 a.m., only to learn that the state deadline for alcohol sales has passed. Rather than go home booze-less, she unleashes an escalating series of verbal tactics on the poor checkout clerk, paying off with a move that must be seen to be believed. The scene makes terror and hilarity one.
Drunken Kate is also easily suggestible, even to questions like, “Do you want some crack?” But that’s another story.
Films about substance abuse often focus on the internal struggle to kick the habit. The supporting characters exist largely to either inspire another binge or to lovingly and bravely nurture the addict through detox. Writer/director James Ponsoldt and his writing partner Susan Burke go a different route. They have a keen eye for relationship dynamics, and examine how Kate’s sobriety causes a rift between her and her life.
The most pivotal relationship is the marriage. Kate and Charlie have shaped their bond on a healthy routine of drunken fun and drunken sex. It isn’t a false love—they aren’t drinking themselves into denial. You can see genuine affection between them as they stumble and smooch. But it’s a love that was fostered under a routine that Kate can no longer follow.
Playing drunk must have seemed easy to Winstead compared to the emotional ride that Kate takes to sobriety. She and Paul play brilliantly off each other. You feel that the characters are comfortable with one another—there’s an energy between them. The actors deftly let a sense of unease arise to break up that energy. Charlie doesn’t see the need to change his lifestyle, and continues partying with his brother and pals. He loses the ritual that always governed his relationship, while Kate finds little of value in seeing him get drunk every night.
The supporting actors contribute more fine performances. Mary Kay Place has a small but palpable role as Kate’s utterly unhelpful mother. Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) gives a reserved performance as Kate’s awkward coworker who, as a recovering alcoholic himself, spots her problem and helps guide her through support groups. Megan Mullally provides some comic relief as the school principal who’s uncontrollably excited about Kate’s “pregnancy”—you’d think she was going to become a grandmother.
The cast members gel wonderfully to create an indelible and unique look at the recovery process. As a result, Smashed finds unexpected laughs and unexpected truths in an otherwise familiar place.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writer: James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Mary Kay Place, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally
Release Date: Oct. 12, 2012