“Smashed” is one of those movies that would sink right into a pile of the year’s misfires if it weren’t for a powerhouse lead performance anchoring it all the way through. The movie follows Kate, a jovial drinker and first-grade teacher, through her exacerbating alcoholism and her struggle to admit she needs help. Drinking is a religion for Kate, who carries her whiskey flask like a Jehovah’s Witness carries his Bible. Without alcohol, she’s lifeless and bored, and though it leaves her hungover every time, it nurtures her chummy marriage to her similarly alcoholic husband.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who played Michael Cera’s love interest in 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” stars as Kate. Winstead puts her finger right on Kate’s dilemma, stuck between marvels of infantile, but fun, drinking and the need to get better by divorcing her addiction altogether. The movie bear-hugs her and gifts her with a challenging role, and Winstead exceeds expectations.
Filmmakers have long exploited alcoholism to an extreme for both its brutal states and its comical derisions. Director James Ponsoldt doesn’t attempt to say anything interesting about it other than what we’ve already heard countless times: It’s bad.
The most remarkable thing he does is cast Winstead as Kate, a first-grade teacher who spends most of her time getting wasted to the point of blacking out. Winstead proves an able comedian, but she also does a wonderful job of outlining what’s seemingly funny about alcoholism with internal dramatic tension.
The other admirable decision Ponsoldt makes is to keep the comedy and drama in check, rarely letting the movie fall into any of the two extremes. The comedy never induces uproarious moments of hilarity, but actually often serves illuminating glimpses of just how far drinking can take Kate and how far she’s willing to go to pretend otherwise. Winstead’s nonchalant persona fits organically into Kate’s stubborn willingness to pretend she is a relaxed and happy drunk when she is anything but.
Kate’s drunken escapades fall from the comic to the absurd when she starts waking up in the streets, giving rides to random drunk strangers, and snorting coke just for kicks. How can such an individual not only teach little kids but keep a straight face in front of her classroom? Before long, she’s puking in front of her first-graders and telling them she’s pregnant when she is really hungover.
Quite an amorphous lifestyle, but Winstead’s performance is always structured and even Kate doesn’t really have a clue of what type of woman she is, Winstead knows full well.
The main problem with the story comes in the form of a husband, Charlie Hannah, played by Aaron Paul from the television show “Breaking Bad.” Charlie is an immature, idle junkie living off his rich parents’ bank account, and supporting his and his wife’s addiction with it. There’s not much else to this character other than looking shit-faced and on the verge of gagging on his intestines.
The real issue, though, is Ponsoldt’s uncertainty of where exactly Charlie lies in the story. The movie keeps shifting back and forth between giving Charlie equal footing with Kate and sidelining him to make the movie a sole-lead story, and the script never fully teases any gradations out of Charlie until the very end of the movie, so much so that there’s not really any development happening even in parts when he’s turned into a co-lead. Charlie serves more as a prop than an actual character, a sort of ruler against whom Kate measures herself.
Luckily for the movie, Ponsoldt makes the decision midway that this story really belongs to Winstead, and no one else. Winstead conveys a surprising amount of truthfulness about the self-destructive nature of alcoholism and the opportunities of regeneration.
Even more impressive, she never quite unveils a particular decision as to why Kate decides to get sober, but rather keeps all the possibilities in play. She never once begs for our pity or sympathies, only for us to understand just why Kate’s fallen as deep as she has.
If not for anything else, let’s thank “Smashed” for realizing Winstead’s potential.
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