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 Dec. 4, 2013
For the second year in a row, the crew down at The Second City in Chicago is coming up to Milwaukee for the holidays to present a holiday comedy special, this time called "The Second City's Nut-Cracking Holiday Revue." OnMilwaukee caught up with one of the stars, Megan Hovde, to ask about the holiday revue, being a part of The Second City and why "The Golden Girls" is one of her comedy icons.
Published Dec. 3, 2013
Stars Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are taking their hit show, "Mythbusters," on the road, and tomorrow night, their "Behind the Myths" tour arrives at the Milwaukee Theater. OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk to Hyneman and ask him about the show's most memorable myths.
Published Dec. 2, 2013
The sun carries almost no heat or warmth. A sharp face-tingling chill greets you as turn every corner on the street. There's not even any wonderful white snow on the ground to make the weather seem any more pleasant. Nope, it's just cold. It's hard to think of a better, more fitting time for Sheryl Crow, the singer-songwriter behind warm, summery hits like "Soak Up the Sun" and "All I Wanna Do," to come to town.
Published Nov. 29, 2013
For those with that built-in affection for the film and the sweet, innocent days of times long gone past, "White Christmas" might be perfect. For me, though, the show - which opened Tuesday night at the Marcus Center - was a whole lot of holly-drenched hokum, as fresh as a Christmas Day snow in the dregs of March.
Published Nov. 28, 2013
"Philomena" may be modest, but that modesty is surprisingly striking and rewarding. After my original screening, I found myself having a hard time putting the movie down in my head. I had to see it a second time, and that second look confirmed my lingering suspicions: It's a damn fine movie.
Published Nov. 27, 2013
Most of the pre-movie Disney or Pixar shorts serve as a nice, tasty appetizer before the main course, but "Get a Horse!" - Mickey Mouse's first theatrical animated short since 1995's nightmare-inducing, childhood-ruining "Runaway Brain" - seems perfect and almost integral for "Frozen." It delightfully sets the stage for what the feature presentation is about to do: take Disney's old traditions and bring them to fresh, blissful new life.
Published Nov. 27, 2013
Christopher Donahue isn't what you'd expect from an actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the famous grumps of stage, screen and literature. He's gracious, soft-spoken and a bit self-depreciating. The only Scroogish thing about him is his fully-grown beard, a mutton chops/mustache combination technically called "a hulihee" (he looked it up).
Published Nov. 25, 2013
When most movie fans hear the phrase "found footage," they normally cringe in fear. It's a gimmick now down to death in Hollywood. The good ones are hard to find; the bad ones are far too easy to find. That's not what the Found Footage Festival, returning to Milwaukee Friday night at the Turner Hall Ballroom, is about at all. Their collection of actual found VHS tapes is bad alright, but the best, most hilarious kind of bad.
Published Nov. 22, 2013
"Delivery Man," the new comedy starring Vince Vaughn, better at being sweet than being funny. Then again, it's hard for a movie to effectively tug at the heartstrings when its own heart clearly isn't in it.
Published Nov. 21, 2013
For a movie that instantly became a worldwide phenomenon, there was surprisingly little about the first "Hunger Games" film that could be described as phenomenal. The director and writing team were switched out for "Catching Fire." The result? A significantly improved sequel that marks a large step toward the complex, interesting and entertaining blockbuster franchise "The Hunger Games" could be.