There have been many memorable movies involving alcohol addiction; some have had great dramatic impact – from Lost Weekend to Days of Wine and Roses and in more recent decades Barfly and Leaving Las Vegas – while others struggled to reach the level of a bad TV movie-of-the-week.
Smashed belongs on a list with those dramatically successful films primarily because of its intimate focus and a terrific performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Her appearances in such films as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter have been enjoyable, but this role gives her the chance to show much greater acting depth and perception.
In the tight script penned by Susan Burke – her first screenplay and one that draws some of its inspiration from her own experiences with early sobriety – and director James Ponsoldt (Off the Black) Winstead plays Kate. She’s a young married whose bond with husband Charlie (Aaron Paul of TV’s “Breaking Bad”) flows through as much booze as both can daily drink. A lie she tells to cover up a hangover threatens her school-teaching job; she also manages to spend an outside all-nighter with a crack-smoking addict she met outside a bar.
Finally sick and tired of being sick and tired, Kate joins Alcoholics Anonymous with the encouragement of the school’s vice principal (Nick Offerman from TV’s “Parks and Recreation”). Her sponsor Jenny (The Help’s Octavia Spencer) is a great help, but Kate is quickly reminded that sobriety doesn’t mean one’s problems are over – it means those problems have to be faced. That includes dealing with the immature and still-drinking Charlie, an estranged mother (“Big Love” starMary Kay Place) and a principal (Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace” fame) who is awkwardly trying to compensate for a loss in her own life.
It’s not totally unfair to say that Smashed feels like Days of Wine and Roses reversed (for those unfamiliar with that 1962 Blake Edwards classic, the husband played by Jack Lemmon seeks sobriety while his Lee Remick-portrayed wife doesn’t). But in keeping with the 50-year gap between the two the storytelling method is very different; there’s no great melodrama in Smashed – just a little yelling – as moments of quiet despair and subdued contemplation take center stage.
Director of Photography Tobias Datum (How the Girls Spent Their Summer) greatly aids the feature’s realism with a reliance on close hand-held shots that at times nicely straddle the line between drama and documentary looks (while happily avoiding vulgar voyeurism). No angles, or lighting, seem forced and/or artificial.
The entire acting ensemble is quite good, but it’s still Winstead’s film to carry as Kate and she does it well. Her character’s pain, anger and frustration are firmly in place, but so are her compassion, humor and hope. And speaking of hope, I hope Winstead comes in for some awards consideration as Hollywood gears up for its annual prize-giving because her unvarnished and insightful performance certainly merits accolades.
Smashed succeeds in showing alcohol addiction’s fallout. It’s not a hopeless tale, but appropriately there’s no sugar-coating either.
Smashed (www.smashedmovie.com) opens Friday, Nov. 16 in Nashville exclusively at Regal Hollywood Stadium 27, 719 Thompson Ln. (www.regmovies.com). Rated R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use. 85 min. Directed by James Ponsoldt; written by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner, Mackenzie Davis and Bree Turner.