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.
Maybe I'm being too dense here, but when, is it EVER funny to smoke crack?
2 comments about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Oct. 16, 2014
A little over a decade ago, Milwaukee musician and Testa Rosa lead vocalist Betty Blexrud-Strigens got a chance to see the legendary Patti Smith in Madison. Even though the show came quite some time after Smith's punk glory years, Blexrud-Strigens still remembers the rock legend providing a charge. Now, it's up to Blexrud-Strigens and a roster of Milwaukee artists and musicians to bring that essence back to the stage with "Smith Uncovered."
Published Oct. 15, 2014
After three years, The Rural Alberta Advantage is taking a new album on the road, including a return stop at Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the band's drummer Paul Banwatt about the process behind "Mended with Gold," looking back at the band's past and spending some time in a creepy Canadian cabin. And, of course, hockey.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
Judged as awards bait, "Kill the Messenger" won't likely snag the golden glory it's looking for. Once you remove the arbitrary frame of awards season, "Kill the Messenger" is a solid, satisfyingly unpredictable and well performed journalism drama that - following the lead of "Shattered Glass" and, of course, "All the President's Men" - often plays like a tense thriller.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
At the end of the month, the Milwaukee Public Museum will celebrate the fall - as well as its current "Alien Worlds and Androids" exhibit - with a Sci-Fi Film Fest. Every Thursday and Saturday (save for Thanksgiving) from Oct. 23 through Nov. 29, the museum will screen a sci-fi flick in the Dome Theater.
Published Oct. 12, 2014
How does one stretch a barely 30-page short story of accumulated gripes and grumbles into a feature length film? In the case of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," the answer is simple: poorly. By the time its 82-minute running time comes to a grateful close - and all of the cliché, contrived and crude chaos with it - Alexander's bad day has morphed into the audience's bad day.
Published Oct. 10, 2014
Few bands have come out of the gates as strongly as Milwaukee's own Field Report. So it's safe to say the bar was set high for Field Report's eventual sophomore attempt, one nicely cleared by "Marigolden," released Tuesday, Oct. 7.
Published Oct. 7, 2014
Just when it seemed like the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival was just beginning. As it turns out, 14 days goes extremely fast, as the sixth annual cinema extravaganza comes to a close Thursday night. But let's not quite start throwing dirt on the festival's casket quite yet. There still are three days of movies, filled with plenty of great options to offer. Here are some of the best of the rest of the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.
Published Oct. 6, 2014
If the opening moment of "Wetlands" desperately pleads against its existence, the ensuing 109 minutes of youthfully exuberant gross-out comedy - currently showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival with a final showing Monday night at the Times Cinema at 10 p.m. - couldn't be a more enthusiastic endorsement for it.
Published Oct. 6, 2014
This afternoon, William Stace - founder of the Miramar Theatre - announced that he and Larry Widen, former owner of the Times and Rosebud Cinemas, have together formed a group called The Milwaukee Theatre Alliance. The group's goal is to purchase the long-closed Modjeska Theatre and reopen it as a multi-use performing arts space.
Published Oct. 6, 2014
Back in 2009, director Marshall Curry's documentary "Racing Dreams" was the opening night selection for the inaugural rendition of a new city event called the Milwaukee Film Festival. Five years later, a lot has changed.