Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an alcoholic. She doesn’t begin Smashed aware of this, but the audience will be. She is married to a more in-control, yet still overindulgent, man named Charlie (Aaron Paul). Together, they spend every night attempting to get as drunk as possible, because they believe that is the best way to have fun. Each morning is spent trying to cure the resulting hangover and get through the day until the next party. Kate is an elementary school teacher, while Charlie works from home.
This isn’t initially a problem. Or, at least, it isn’t prior to the film beginning. One of the earliest scenes of Smashed has Kate throwing up in front of her class, telling them she’s pregnant — and not hungover — and having the vice-principal (Nick Offerman) learning the truth and covering for her. A few scenes later, she leaves the bar early, offers to drive someone else home, winds up smoking crack and wakes up in the middle of nowhere. She decides she needs help, and she does. We applaud her for this decision.
Smashed isn’t your typical film about the struggles with addiction and getting clean. For one, it’s too short to go through all the peaks and valleys that these stories typically posses. It runs for only 81 minutes, and does a surprising amount of things in that time. It has very strong characters, although the development of Kate is placed squarely in the “Will she overcome her addiction?” category. Despite this she feels real, and so does the story. Anyone who has known an alcoholic will see the truth in this picture.
A large part of this success rests on the shoulders of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, stretching out from her genre movie roots. Winstead does a wonderful job with Smashed, giving an emotional performance that contains more depth than you’d expect given her resume. A great deal of Smashed could have fallen flat without a strong lead, and thankfully Winstead delivers. Even in the scenes that could be interpreted as over-the-top — let’s just say that they’re not, and those who have been there, as I suspect the filmmakers have, will know this.
What’s most surprising about Smashed is how efficiently and effectively it accomplishes its goals — all while doing it without the use of a soapbox. So many of these movies come across as preachy, and as if they can’t deliver a message without judging anyone who disagrees with it. Smashed is non-judgmental, and feels more realistic as a result. Without coming across as if it condemns those who disagree with it, it becomes more poignant.
Where Smashed falls flat is in its tone, which attempts to walk a line between comedy and drama and never truly succeed at either, and in the story, which at one point jumps forward a year, apparently with nothing interesting happening in between where we leave and pick up. It’s like the filmmakers ran out of money to film some scenes during this period, so they wound up simply skipping it all. It’s fine, I guess, but it’s a big head-scratcher when you’re watching the film, and it takes you out of the moment.
That tone becomes a problem later on. While one important scene has a lot of emotion to it, and it manages to strike the right note, a lot of the more serious moments are too funny, while the points where Smashed goes for humor fall flat. I suppose that this also winds up being truthful — from an outsider’s perspective, some of this stuff does come across the opposite way from what the characters would interpret — but that doesn’t necessarily make for a good motion picture. And it’s hard to tell if that was the attempt by the filmmakers, or if it was simply an unintended byproduct.
It’s still easy to respect and admire a film that deals with alcoholism in such a true, unforced, and intelligent way. It sidesteps many of the clichés associated with this type of film, and it treats its subject matter with respect. All of this is accomplished with $500,000 and 81 minutes of running time. This is the type of film to applaud even if it isn’t an absolute — um — smash, simply for accomplishing its modest goals.
While Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is central and key, there is a lot of good work put in by the supporting cast, too. Among the names you’ll find in this film are Octavia Spancer, Megan Lullally, Mary Kay Place, and Kyle Davis, as well as the aforementioned members of the supporting cast. This is a film that does a lot right, has some missteps, but is elevated by its actors.
I liked Smashed. I think it is important. It is confident about its subject matter and it doesn’t attempt to condemn the types of people it portrays; it simply watches them and makes its point by simple observance. The handheld cinematography strongly portrays Kate’s state of mind. Some scenes will resonate strongly with viewers who have dealt with alcoholics in their own lives. It’s not an experience to recommend. It’s a shame that the film rarely finds a proper tone given the scene, and that it seemed to run out of money part way through, leading to a hastened finale. It overcomes these issues, but not to the extent that makes it a must-watch.