In every corner of James Ponsoldt’s Smashed, brilliance is hinted at but rarely espoused. However, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s authentic portrayal of a woman whose life is at the mercy of her alcoholism is more than enough of a reason to give this independent drama (which is filmed in the vein of a documentary) an honest glance. Yes, indeed – Smashed is the first movie of 2012 that I’ve awarded less than three stars but am unashamed to recommend. Why? I’m unsure. Maybe it’s the screenplay’s zest for an “issue” film that works against the heavily dramatic norm, maybe it’s Winstead’s corporeal performance, or maybe it’s the need for people to see this film and demand Ponsoldt release or create an extended director’s cut. Rare is the film that you require more time with instead of less, but low and behold the abbreviated Smashed could have been something truly wonderful if it had just extended its characters’ arcs, its inspection of a heavy topic and its narrative imaginings a good thirty or forty minutes more. Instead, I felt rather cheated with Smashed’s sparse running time, and ultimately that feeling of “what could have been” wore too heavy on me to easily shake off.
Smashed’s plot is a rather simple one. A young married couple does what most people their age do: drink, smoke, party until the early hours of the morning and sleep in all day, with some occasional bump and grind in-between. The difference is that most couples postpone such irresponsible usage of their time until the weekend. In spurts, this reckless and uncouth behavior can be cathartic; it’s an escape from the ordinary blandness of the 9 to 5 job schedule. However, for Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), this excursion of fun happens every night after work. Somewhere along the way, Kate’s drinking has become a normalized pattern. It isn’t until she begins to see the consequences from alcohol – chiefly, vomiting in front of her students and then fabricating a lie that she’s pregnant – that she realizes she may have a problem. Her husband, Charlie, is also a heavy drinker and creature of the night, but won’t recognize his or Kate’s substance abuse because they seem most in love when they’re either drunk or high. While Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are individually great on their own, they exude zero chemistry together. Even their sex scenes lack warm passion. I wonder if this was the intention of Holdt and co-writer Susan Burke, because all throughout the film I had no desire to see the pair stay married. Aaron Paul as Charlie almost seems too perfect for this role. It’s as if the casting director watched too many episodes of the phenomenal Breaking Bad, pointed to the screen and squealed, “I want him!” In all fairness, however, Paul’s acting is very consistent with the script’s version of Charlie, although I can’t help but wonder if another actor tackling the character would have wowed us more. Because Charlie is such an obvious role for Aaron Paul to play, his acting creates less impact than his awesome talents deserve, and that’s an unfortunate shame.
Following her classroom outburst – literally – and some disturbingly revolting behavior (peeing on the floor of a convenient store which, by the way, Mary Elizabeth Winstead does beautifully), Kate decides she needs to come to terms with her alcoholism and go to Alcoholics Anonymous for treatment. I enjoy how the film presents AA as an alienating force rather than an entity everyone in your life will gladly support. Kate’s mom (Mary Kay Place) and husband see her path to sobriety akin to being taken aboard an alien space vessel, experimented on, and then dropped back on earth with an unfamiliar aura of robotic pragmatism. In some ways they’re jealous, and in other ways they despise the air of moral superiority that comes with being sober. It’s no surprise in Smashed that the most damning forces to Kate are the ones closest to her heart.
Smashed is beautifully shot by cinematographer Tobias Datum who, as I said earlier, films as though it were a documentary. The actors seem natural in scenes, with the background moving at a leisurely pace without those Hollywood props and blocking methods that make a scene feel forced and artificial. I can see where many would find issues with Smashed’s contrarian tone. You come in expecting a dark and depressing film, but it’s quite the opposite. The filmmaker, cast and crew have all stated that Smashed is more of a character study/romance piece than a “message movie” that tries to convince you of the evils of alcohol. I assume the zig-zag tone Ponsoldt establishes is meant to replicate the highs and lows of everyday life. Points should be given to Ponsoldt for mirroring reality in a genuine way, but as a film-goer your attachment to a character means dealing with their rock-bottom moments and then rising from there. Smashed’s main problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an actual rock-bottom for Kate. Yes, there is one scene where Kate predictably relapses, but it doesn’t dissolve into that necessary extra layer of sheer hopelessness. I was waiting for the hellish valley in Kate’s journey, but all I witnessed were a few dips and holes. Ultimately, Smashed loses some dramatic weight by not allowing Kate to fall down far enough to pick herself back up again.
Smashed has instances of character inconsistency, whereby their flipped attitudes towards Kate’s sobriety or lack thereof seem contrived and contrary to their pre-established behaviors. Viewers who watch Smashed will know the exact scene I’m referring to, and quite frankly it left a sour taste in my mouth. Character arcs should be rationally implemented, not randomly spun to fit the scene, and in that particular moment the script lost me. It’s a good thing that the AA meetings are so wonderfully written. There isn’t a sappy element to the scenes depicting Kate’s support group, and in fact Mary Elizabeth’s strongest bit of acting is when she presents the pros and cons of being an alcoholic to her group right near the film’s end. Some may take offense to Smashed’s refusal to condemn alcoholism or substance abusers in general, but I felt as though Ponsoldt and Burke were trying to create an authentic perspective on what is gained and lost by becoming sober. Smashed’s story is very loosely based on co-writer Susan Burke’s experiences with alcohol, and through scenarios which seem for the most part more true to life than not, it’s scary how seductive alcoholism can be to one who fears a boring existence.
Several other supporting players either standout unexpectedly or find themselves mishandled by the script. Nick Offerman is almost the best part of Smashed. The strength of his performance sneaks up on you – it’s humorous, painfully real and wonderfully awkward. One scene in particular between Winstead and Offerman is uncomfortably glorious, humor-filled and exceptionally well-timed. The pair has more chemistry together than Winstead and Paul do, and I would’ve loved to have seen this relationship explored more thoroughly in the film. Megan Mullally, Kate’s principal boss, is the unfortunate weak link in the film. She’s a character that’s written with two varied personalities, neither of which seems cemented in reality. Again, I’m not a fan of characters that jump from one behavioral extreme to the next within a second’s notice, and I found the final scene between Mullally’s Principal Barnes and Kate to be catastrophically problematic. It’s one thing to present a scene as the catalyst for future narrative events, but I wholeheartedly oppose a scenario that unjustifiably kicks the film’s protagonist to the curb without a trace of rationality or believability.
Octavia Spencer also stars in this film as Kate’s sponsor, and even though her sassiness sits wonderfully alongside the pearls of wisdom she bestows upon Kate, I felt this Oscar-winning actress was underutilized. To be fair, filming of Smashed was completed before Spencer won “Best Supporting Actress” for The Help, but you can’t help but feel like Spencer’s Jenny deserves to be more than just the saintly Mother Teresa of AA. In fact, the film’s quick jumps in time don’t really provide us with a sense of Kate’s struggles during the twelve-step program. Smashed would seem more important if it further detailed the trials and tribulations in Kate’s sobriety journey. Instead, we’re simply meant to accept that Kate is sober until she isn’t. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is phenomenal with what she’s given to do, but what she’s given is also far too light for an Oscar nomination. The Academy expects a performance that deals with such a bleak topic to really lay it all out, not touch at the seams of dark tidings. Smashed’s happy-go-lucky vibe may play well with indie fans, but those looking for a serious take on alcoholism and addiction – like, I don’t know…The Academy? – may be disappointed with the film and the restrained performance by Winstead. I wouldn’t be disappointed if Winstead found herself in the “Best Actress” lineup, but I also wouldn’t cry foul over the expected snub.
Smashed is a film with great intentions, filled with realistic moments that authenticate a person’s everyday struggles with addiction. Smashed’s main problem is its short running time, whereby character arcs are announced instead of seen. If I had to describe Smashed in a sentence, I’d say that it’s a very light version of last year’s Shame. Both focus their attention on characters plagued by severe addiction, and both end in the same ambivalent manner, but ultimately Shame’s fearlessness and darker spirit made for a deeper, more-involved film experience. Smashed, meanwhile, is light indie fare with a dark topic at its center. It doesn’t aim as high as its subject matter suggests, and therefore undermines its potential to be one of the better films concerning alcoholism and addiction.
Smashed releases today, October 12th, in New York and Los Angeles. A national rollout is soon to follow, so check this film out when you’re able to. I’m sure there will be plenty to discuss concerning James Ponsoldt’s latest feature film.