It’s Hard to Love ‘Smashed’
Written by James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke
Directed by James Ponsoldt
USA 2012 imdb
The reason to see Smashed is an amazing performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an alcoholic 1st grade teacher, married to an equally alcoholic music critic. Winstead’s Kate is walking a tightrope made of broken bottles, teetering somewhere between comedy and tragedy like a drunken Hexadecimal. Kate and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are the life of the party, any party, every party. It is only when a hungover Kate throws up in front of her 1st grade class (after taking a few nips from the flask in her car to fortify her for the day) and her students come to the conclusion that she’s pregnant, that Kate begins to believe that she has a problem. For a teacher, Kate is a very slow learner and it takes even more disturbing morning afters until Kate accepts the invitation from her school’s vice-principal Dave (Nick Offerman) to attend his AA meetings.
It’s a brave performance. The obvious comparison is to Meg Ryan’s role in When a Man Loves a Woman. Meg Ryan’s portrayal of Alice Green is arguably braver only because at the time Meg was “America’s Sweetheart” and watching When a Man Loves a Woman when it was originally released was like watching Meg Ryan drag her America’s Sweetheart persona into a dark alley and beat her to death with a vodka bottle. Both Alice and Kate are out of control although Kate’s journey is much scarier and fraught with more potential danger. Both work in schools, Alice as a counselor, Kate as a teacher. The key turning points for both women involve children, Kate exposing them to inappropriate situations and discussion, while Alice hits her nine year old daughter Tess (Tina Majorino).
The biggest difference between the two women is that Alice’s husband Michael (Andy Garcia) is not an alcoholic. The third act of When a Man Loves a Woman revolves around Michael trying to deal with Alice as a recovering alcoholic and finding that in some ways he preferred his wife as a drunk, as a problem that he could enable and fix. By contrast, Charlie is a happy drunk. Both Kate and Charlie are in an alcoholic tailspin. The problem for Charlie is that they are out of synch. Kate’s dive to the bottom of the bottle is much steeper than his is; she hits bottom before Charlie even knows that there is a bottom to hit.
Kate believes that she can get sober while Charlie stays a drunk. This is one of many illusions that she has about AA and her disease. Smashed never spells out the steps in AA’s twelve steps, partly because more explicit films like When a Man Loves a Woman made the audience familiar with the details, partly because Kate doesn’t care about the details. She is using Dave’s meetings as a short-cut to sobriety, to take a break from drinking and she treats the process as though the steps are optional.
There is a sense that everyone in Dave’s group knows this and does not object, including her sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer). Dave and Jenny don’t lecture Kate partly because they are both in love with her, but mostly because they know that there is no need. The universe and Kate’s disease will correct Kate’s illusions better than they ever could. The film’s shorthand for the twelve steps is Jenny’s observation, “An honest life is hard,” and Kate discovers how hard the first time she decides to follow one of the twelve steps and try to make amends to someone that she has lied to, admitting for the first time without reservations that she is an alcoholic. The cost of that honesty for Kate is the psychic equivalent of getting her teeth kicked down her throat.
It’s a great performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I just wish that it was in a better film. This may seem like an odd thing to say given that Winstead’s Kate is the omnipresent beating heart of the film. She is in every scene except for a drunken adventure of Charlie’s and that scene excepted, she is in almost every frame of the film. The problem with Smashed isn’t what is on the screen, it’s that, at a brisk 85 minutes, there isn’t enough of it.
The biggest difference between Smashed and When a Man Loves a Woman is that the Meg Ryan film does the hard work and heavy lifting, showing us not just the fall, the crash and the rise but the hard work that goes into making that rise possible and the every day grind of being a non-drinking alcoholic. By comparison, at the half-way point of Smashed, the film blacks out and ten minutes later the credits are rolling. (Yes, the math doesn’t work. My point.)
You can’t make a film built around the theme that shortcuts don’t work and end it by taking a shortcut.
– Michael Ryan