Smashed, a film about the effects of alcoholism, is a relic in many ways. Alcoholism in movies does not generally hold the same weight as other films about addiction. Whether it’s The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas, it’s been done before, and done well. This modern world is ready for films about sex addiction, starring Michael Fassbender.
And yet, director James Ponsoldt‘s film is a worthy entry into the addiction sub-genre. Above all else, Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s lead performance carries the film. As Kate, a young grade school teacher with an escalating drinking problem, Winstead plays up the very relatable, very real sentiment most hard drinkers in their 20s have: they drink until they blackout, yes, but couldn’t be alcoholics.
The people Kate surrounds herself with only fuel the fire, specifically her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), who’s got a drinking problem all his own. Playing another kind of addict here, Paul doesn’t detract much from his now-iconic turn as Jesse Pinkman in the hit show Breaking Bad. In many ways, his performance is a sort-of Pinkman greatest hits.
And while Winstead and Paul anchor the film and explicit very real emotion from the audience, the film itself is a bit too much of a greatest hits rundown of addiction drama hot points. What follows a powerful opening, in which we watch Kate drink herself to a stupor, wake up in strange places alone and proceed to embarrass herself in front of classroom, is a beautiful moment of realization for the young woman at her first AA meeting. As she speaks on her drinking, a nonchalant smile on her face slowly melts away as she hears herself describe the actions of an addict.
Cut to a “recovery montage” and then months of sobriety, all in a few minutes. It’s jolts in pacing like this that make Smashed hard to fully give into. Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke seem more curious with the bad times and the good times, rather than the times in between. In one particular scene, just when the full effects of Kate’s new-found sobriety and Charlie’s continued drunkenness are finally coming to a head, we cut to black, shielded from the really bad part, as it were.
Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman, as Kate’s vice principal and confidante, stands out in particular, creating an equally kind and perverse middle-aged character that feels neither cheap nor easy. The same goes for Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer as Kate’s sponsor, both aware that what she’s selling can sound like Chinese cookie wisdom and that that same wisdom saved her life.
Megan Mullally, the other half of the Offerman/Mullally power couple, is a bit miscast as the soft-spoken principal of Kate’s school. She’s not given quite enough to do and used only when completely necessary. This is Winstead and Paul’s show from start to finish. They play well off each other, as the film becomes less about alcoholism and more about how one builds, and keeps, relationships as both sides continue to change.