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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in "Smashed," in theaters now.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in "Smashed," in theaters now.

Raise a glass to "Smashed"

It's hard for me to comment on the reality and authenticity of "Smashed." I've never known a person afflicted with alcoholism, much less been an alcoholic myself. I can't speak to whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the personal ongoing battle with addiction.

I suppose you could say that about most movies; I've never been a MI6 British secret agent, but I'd be more than willing to tell you about the parts of "Skyfall" I find absurd (anything involving massive gila monsters).

The small indie movie, though, feels very real. In fact, very few films are as awkwardly, hilariously and painfully genuine as "Smashed." It's not a biographical film (though some of co-writer Susan Burke's personal experiences from getting sober in her early 20s helped enlighten the script), but critiquing it and calling it out on its issues seems unfair, like grading someone's life based on my personal assumptions.

While it's definitely fair to say that not all of "Smashed" goes down smoothly, the end result is an intimate, complicated film about an intimate, complicated topic, with a smashing lead performance to boot.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") provides said performance as Kate, a young elementary school teacher. When she's not at the school, Kate and her equally alcoholic husband Charlie ("Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul) can be found drinking heavily at the local bar, shakily biking back home and drinking pretty much anything they have there too. Joaquin Phoenix's character from "The Master" would be so proud.

As her awful experiences escalate – namely covering up a hangover-induced bout of throwing up in the middle of teaching class with a lie about pregnancy – Kate decides it's time to try getting sober. With the help of her awkward co-worker (Nick Offerman, endearingly known as Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation"), she begins going to AA meetings and gaining a sponsor (the underutilized Octavia Spencer).

This complicates matters with the still hard-partying Charlie and her estranged mother (Mary Kay Place), who became a wreck after her husband left after also straightening up in AA.

Based on the previews, one could easily make the assumption that "Smashed" is an indie romantic comedy about alcoholics, and early on, that'd be pretty much correct. Winstead and Paul drunkenly banter, have awful drunk sex and get into all sorts of shenanigans. Sometimes it's funny (Winstead samples crack), sometimes it's terrifying (she wakes up on a disgusting abandoned couch in the middle of nowhere) and sometimes it's both.

Writer/director James Ponsoldt creates a strange mix of humor and drama that is difficult to get a handle on at first. A part of the problem with alcoholism is that people often have fun being drunk and do funny, ridiculous things when they lose control. It's sometimes only afterward when the regret really kicks in. "Smashed" tries to capture this balance and succeeds, albeit stumblingly. The overly chipper soundtrack and jittery camerawork don't help.

When the film struggles to stay upright early on, it luckily has Winstead's great performance to lean on. Ponsoldt's camera is often in love with Winstead's expressive face and understandably so. When she's drunk (which is often in the first act), she's vivacious and fun without ever condescending or judging her character. Then when she's sober, the viewer can see the guilt and fear without getting beaten over the head with it.

Watch her first AA meeting talk. Winstead hits every awkward level of amusement, confusion, embarrassment and guilt just right. It's moments like those where the audience realizes they find the humanity in her character because Winstead finds the humanity in her character. Hopefully, the Academy finds her performance, as well (it's a small movie, so it may need some help).

As "Smashed" lets its characters and story evolve, the emotional balance and camerawork becomes more stable, and the performances, especially Winstead, only get better. The minor characters aren't the most developed, but the actors – especially Spencer and Megan Mullally – provide the color that the screenplay lacks. Paul's character also gets a very touching moment in the film's closing sequence.

Ponsoldt's movie isn't perfect, but an original indie film with relationships and characters based in emotional authenticity rather than hip quirk? Cheers to that.

Talkbacks

SarahLibrarian | Nov. 13, 2012 at 12:32 p.m. (report)

Maybe I'm being too dense here, but when, is it EVER funny to smoke crack?

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Midwest | Nov. 12, 2012 at 8:12 p.m. (report)

Umm. Not the best headline. Great review though.

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