Films dealing with alcoholics are rarely anything less than depressing, with the rare instance of a film like the original ARTHUR (which is a hilarious and heartfelt joy to watch). Going back to THE LOST WEEKEND or DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES to more recent films like Paul Schrader's LIGHT SLEEPER, or really any film dealing with addiction made in the last 20-odd years, alcoholism and addiction are not really to be made light of anymore. It's understandable, and there are always good reasons for film and television dealing with alcoholism and addiction with the appropriate amount of gravitas. James Ponsolt's SMASHED makes a something of a case that a film about alcoholism can have dramatic weight, but can also look at it with a bit of humor in its heart, and that's thanks to a revelatory performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a terrific, if perhaps underused, supporting cast.
Winstead plays Kate, a grammar school teacher who, along with her occasionally-employed rock critic husband Charlie (BREAKING BAD's Aaron Paul), have an abiding love of good times and lots of drinks. When Kate finds herself hitting bottom relatively hard (she pukes in front of her class due to her hangover, and lies about being pregnant to them and to the school's principal played by Megan Mullaly), she decides that it's time to get sober. Through the help of the school's vice-principal (Nick Offerman) who recognizes her as a drunk, he gets her into AA. But Charlie isn't terribly supportive of this, and continues to drink. Kate's mom (Mary Kay Place), a long-time functioning alcoholic, also feels that trying to get sober is a fool's errand. Through AA, Kate also meets a friendly and sassy sponsor in Jenny (Octavia Spencer), who she confides in and helps her through the rough times, at least until her personal and work life hit rock-bottom.
While the film ends on a note of quiet triumpth, it feels like a good chunk of the film was just excised to get to the meat of the storytelling and really concentrating on Winstead's amazing performance. I've been kind of in love with her since seeing her in flawed films like LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD and DEATH-PROOF, but seeing her as Ramona Flowers in the brilliant SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD kind of sealed the deal of wanting to see a lot more of her, and this performance is just tremendous. It's not particularly showy in a way that garners awards, but instead, she vanishes into her role physically, down-playing her natural beauty and seeming more plain-jane than we've seen her before, as well as emotionally. Her demeanor flips between highs and lows (including a particularly suspenseful but hilarous moment after she's just smoked crack for the first and only time), and they're all played extremely convincingly. Paul is quite good here, but his character isn't much of a variation on Jesse Pinkman to say that it's a stretch. Mullaly and Offerman, natural comedians, are also a bit of a revelation here as they reach out of their comfort zone. As for the rest of the cast, sadly Spencer and Place are in roles that barely amount to more than cameos, which was pretty disappointing.
The script and direction by feature-length newcomer Ponsolt (and co-writer Susan Burke) is very naturalistic and never seems over-wrought. And again, there are moments of genuine humor here, particularly between Winstead and Offerman, who share one of the most uncomfortably funny scenes in recent memory. One of the nice things also about the way that Kate is written is that there's never a scene where she's pushing Charlie to join her in sobriety; she lets their relationship play out and see where he lands. Unfortunately, the film does seem to short some of the characters in its perhaps too brisk 85 minute run-time. It could have done well with either excising some of the characters or giving the supporting cast some more depth.
Once it's all said and done, though, this is really Winstead's show, and it's a marvelous, career-changing performance, and if for no other reason, SMASHED should be seen for Winstead.
4 out of 5 stars.