Movie Review: Smashed
By Matthew Huntley
October 23, 2012
Alcoholism, and how it tests the endurance of a couple, is not a subject matter that’s new to the movies. Smashed is the latest to join the list that includes Days of Wine and Roses, When a Man Loves a Woman and Leaving Las Vegas, and while it doesn’t stray too far from its brethren in terms of the inevitable drama and conflicts, it has a more personal feel about it, perhaps because the characters are so tangible. When the addict in this movie tries her best to get sober and the circumstances around her do their best to push her off the wagon, we find ourselves sympathizing and empathizing with her. It’s that sense of identification that gives the film value.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, a first grade teacher with an obvious drinking problem, one that the movie makes no attempt to disguise. She wakes up daily with a hangover, sometimes after wetting the bed, and barely hesitates taking a shot of whiskey before going into her classroom. Winstead makes Kate’s behavior seem so natural that we’re convinced this has been her routine for years. Only now - after vomiting in class and lying to her students that she’s pregnant; smoking cocaine with a homeless woman; and waking up in an alley - does Kate begin to suspect she has a problem and needs a break from booze.
She’s not the only one. Kate’s husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) is just as dependent, although it’s not as evident since alcohol doesn’t affect his day-to-day life as much. Charlie comes from a well-off family and doesn’t have a traditional job. He stays home all day, plays video games and occasionally reviews concerts of up-and-coming bands.
But the movie doesn’t necessarily point the finger at Charlie for why Kate drinks so much. In all fairness, the two complement each other. Kate’s problems began long ago and are the result of several factors, including her socioeconomic status growing up, her distant and difficult mother (Mary Kay Place), and the fact she’s always struggled to accept who she is. Deep down, Kate has a low self-esteem and has never considered herself a leader or winner in any capacity. She turned to alcohol to make her feel otherwise, but now it’s taking its toll.
Still, how Kate got to her current state isn’t the movie’s focus; Smashed is more concerned with how she plans to address it. The vice principal at her school (Nick Offerman), himself a recovering addict, sees her taking swigs from her flask before school, but rather than report her to Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), who continues to believe Kate is pregnant (a joke the movie lets linger too long), he invites her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Here, Kate meets Jenny (Octavia Spencer), a strong-willed and experienced woman who’s had her fair share of problems and outbursts. The movie fortunately doesn’t paint Jenny as a saint or sage whose only purpose is to deliver long-winded speeches about life. It simply sees her as normal survivor willing to take Kate under her wing.
In fact, the movie sees all of its characters on a relatively realistic playing field, where nobody is too wrought or colorful. The movie is raw and avoids glorifying Kate’s situation for the sake of dramatic payoff. True, the filmmaking and storytelling feel slightly amateurish - we can tell director and co-writer James Ponsoldt is somewhat new to the game, but he still brings a hard truth to the screen. He penned the screenplay with Susan Burke and they aren’t interested in making a broad social commentary or grandiose statement about alcoholism. They’re more concerned with their specific characters on a human level.
Because Kate has other problems besides alcohol addiction, we appreciate that a happy ending isn’t necessarily in the movie’s contract and it fortunately doesn’t pretend otherwise. Even if Kate does achieve sobriety, we know she still has a mighty hill to climb before she really gets her life on track. The reason the movie works is because, through all her struggles, we come to care about Kate and recognize the film’s message that it’s up to us to live our lives one day at a time and better ourselves, despite the setbacks. It’s a straightforward but useful lesson.
One last thing I’d like to touch on is the film’s sense of humor, which came as a surprise to me. It’s almost an unwritten rule that movies about addiction shouldn’t make us laugh because the subject matter is so serious, but Ponsoldt lends the material a darkly humorous edge. At first, this seems inappropriate, but then we see it’s merely an extension of the characters and their essential natures, and it’s perfectly credible. Perhaps Ponsoldt wanted to show that while addiction can be scary, overwhelming and frustrating, the road to recovery can be a bizarrely funny one, depending on who you surround yourself with (you’ll know what I mean after hearing the conversation Kate and her vice principal have in the car when he drops her off). I’ve never struggled with addiction, and it’s not a funny situation, but this movie made me believe that those who have can probably look back on it from time to time and laugh. I assume that helps dull the pain of the worse memories.