Smashed will probably be the film that your kids will one day watch in health class about alcoholism and say when they get home, “we watched an old movie in Health today.” However, be aware that I don’t mean that the film is as cheesy as, say, A Body to Die For: The Aaron Henry Story (a health class favorite in my school district) because it is an effective film about an alcoholic that is thankfully devoid of much of the melodrama that a Lifetime movie would have with the same material.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a young married couple whose relationship revolves around being, well, shitfaced as much as possible. They live in the type of alcoholic squalor in which half-empty beer bottles are all over their house and they seem to have little care in the upkeep of their home (a real nice touch the set designers made is that none of their sheets and pillowcases match — something that my usually sober wife would go nuts about). The problem with this is that Kate is a first grade teacher, and when she shows up for work one day incredibly hungover and throws up in front of her class she ends up deciding on the easy explanation that she is pregnant. While Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) is overjoyed, Vice Principal Davies (Nick Offerman) knows the truth because he saw Kate sipping on her flask in the parking lot. Though Kate soon makes the decision to go sober, this isn’t easy because Charlie, who “works” from home, is constantly drinking. Charlie is a “music journalist” — the quotes are because it’s hinted at it being nothing more than a glorified hobby that he can use as an excuse to stay home and drink with his brother (Kyle Gallner) and play video games. But Kate isn’t alone in her struggle to become sober — Davies introduces her to Alcoholics Anonymous, where she ends up with sassy sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spenser). Because, after all, if you’re going to have a sponsor, why not a sassy one?
Except for a few moments where she is over the top, Winstead turns in a strong portrayal of an alcoholic, and it’s pretty brave of her to star in a role that she has to appear as plain and unkept in most of the scenes (after all, drunk people are usually not pretty people). Of course, her downward spiral seems a bit accelerated (the film is only 85 minutes), but in a lot of ways that prevents the film from adopting a tone that’s too dramatic. One of the film’s strengths is how Kate’s relationships change with her loved ones when she sobers up — her boozy mother (Mary Kay Place) virtually disowns her since her husband (Kate’s father) left her when he sobered up (However, I’d imagine most people would have, too), though director/co-writer James Ponsoldt thankfully doesn’t take the turn you’d expect when Davies and Kate become closer through AA. Obviously the primary relationship affected is Kate’s relationship with Charlie — when she dries out she realizes how little in common they have, which probably should’ve dawned on her when she would pass out in random places in town and he didn’t seem all that concerned.
While Smashed won’t unseat Days of Wine and Roses as perhaps the best film about alcoholism, it’s interesting that the gender roles in this film are reversed. Society still seems to believe that alcoholics are overwhelmingly male, though anyone who has gone to college could tell you otherwise, so this film seems remarkably fresh. The film’s co-writer, Susan Burke, based the film on her own life story (she became sober at 24), which adds to the realism. Yes, elements of it feel like one is watching an after school special, but it’s so well-made that those moments are easy to accept. Though the film could have done a lot more with this story — an abrupt “one year later” jump skips over a lot of scenes that would have been fascinating to see Winstead in — it shows that relative newcomer James Ponsoldt (Smashed is his second film) has promise.
Rating: An effective, though abbreviated, story of alcoholism that avoids melodrama (7.5/10).