Saturday, December 8, 2012


Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the clear standout in writer and director James Ponsoldt's "Smashed," which follows Winstead's character, Kate, as she acknowledges her alcoholism and leads a new life to sobriety. It's a very small, intimate film not even running a full 90 minutes, and in this design Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke (whose experiences inspired the story) know exactly their goal: to present a truthful portrayal of how alcohol addiction can affect a person's life in ways they may not imagine. It appears to be a very personal project and may have you wondering "what's the point?" but then looking at the actress' performance at its center, and you'll have found your answer.

Kate is married to a scruffy, loving husband Charlie, played by the "Breaking Bad" double-Emmy winner Aaron Paul in his first dramatic role outside of the AMC drama. On the surface their marriage seems healthy because they're happy together, but as the film slowly peels away the layers of their wedlock, you realize they're only happy together when they're both drunk. They drink a lot -- out with friends, at the bar and then to a dangerous level back in their home. Two incidences push Kate to think her drinking has become a problem. After drunk-driving a stranger home who offers her a hit of a crack pipe, Kate wakes up the next morning unaware of where she is or how she got there. Another morning at her elementary school job, she throws up from a hangover and after being asked by a student if she's pregnant, she instinctively responds "yes" to hide her shame and without realizing the repercussions.

A fellow teacher at the school, Dave (Nick Offerman) recognizes Kate's struggle as he was once an alcoholic himself. He offers to take her to AA where she meets a warm-hearted sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer in her first serious role since her Oscar win for "The Help"). Meanwhile back at the school, Kate has to deal with her lying as the principal (Megan Mullally) is congratulating her pregnancy. The film boasts an understated ensemble cast that's actually not as utilized as maybe it could've been -- but again, this allows Winstead to shine even more.

The scenes of Winstead drinking herself to oblivion are equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying, especially when she interacts with Charlie who simply doesn't want to believe in not only her alcohol dependence but also his own. Even when they both visit Kate's estranged mother (Mary Kay Place), she receives no support because her mother, too, has a drinking problem she can't admit. The power in Ponsoldt's tale of recovery comes from the unexpected results of getting sober. The reality is that it's not just about becoming dry and putting down the bottle -- it's about realizing the other effects it will have on your job, your relationships, your marriage.

"Smashed" is worth your time if only for Winstead's performance and Aaron Paul's supporting turn, and the way they interact together as an alcohol-soaked couple. As one of the two movies out this year about alcoholism (the other being "Flight"), it's a serious movie about drinking but also one that doesn't lose hope.

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