Movies about alcoholism are always pitiful and tragic in nature. The characters in “Leaving Las Vegas” or even as far back as “The Lost Weekend” are at the lowest of low, and drinking is the end-all/be-all of problems.
“Smashed” tells a story about a functioning alcoholic, or someone who has survived this way for a long time. It recognizes that alcoholism is just a catalyst in people’s complex lives; the deeper problems are systemic. In that way, James Ponsoldt’s film feels infinitely more relatable.
Yet of course, the lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a big part of the reason “Smashed” feels so warm, likeable, relatable and even funny. Winstead plays Kate Hannah as an effortlessly cute showman, especially when she’s drunk. Her drinking in the shower and even in the car is a force of habit, but with her it feels like a grace note. She’s a terrific 1st grade teacher, making her kids feel as though they’re lucky contestants on “The Price is Right.”
When she goes into work hung over one morning, it doesn’t affect her work, just interrupts it. In a snap of the fingers, Ponsoldt smash edits her vomiting in her desk’s trash bin in front of all the kids. She works her way into a lie by convincing her students and the principal that she’s pregnant. But an assistant principal (“Parks and Rec’s” Nick Offerman in a wonderfully dry, dramatic performance) figures it out and invites her to AA.
“Smashed” shines by treating AA as another complex item in someone’s recovery, not a necessity. It’s more interested in alcoholism serving as the subtext to Kate’s rocky relationship with her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul). The two are an item while they’re drinking, which is all the time. They sing karaoke and snuggle, but he has a habit of falling asleep during sex, blurting her secrets to his friends and allowing her to vanish only to wake up the next morning under an overpass.
Ponsoldt’s work here will be seen as very hands-off, and “Smashed” will be remembered as an actor’s film and a movie built upon its screenplay. But Ponsoldt is a gifted director and writer who gives even supporting characters, such as the principal who desperately wants a baby, personality and nuance that could make a dozen interesting films. It allows for scenes like one between Winstead and Offerman to move between feeling tender and awkward in a flash. He confesses he has a crush on her before taking his words too far, a sensation common for alcoholics and common for “Smashed” that makes the whole thing feel just perfect.
3 ½ stars