TIFF 2012: ‘Smashed’ a warm, funny, emotionally honest take on alcoholism

Written by James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke
Directed by James Ponsoldt
USA, 2012

Of all subjects, alcoholism has not traditionally been associated with levity. In cinematic terms, when we think of alcoholism on screen, the likes of Leaving Las Vegas or The Lost Weekend spring to mind, portraits of tortured souls whose battles with the bottle threaten to end their existence. James Ponsoldt’s Smashed resolutely does not belong to that lineage. While it features scenes of stark sadness, personal failure, and interpersonal collapse, it manages to balance a realistic approach to the pain of alcohol abuse with a sense of humor and warmth that – most of the time – manages not to feel schizophrenic, cutesy, or dishonest.

One of the reasons Smashed holds together so well is that its star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, plays the film’s rocky preschool-teacher heroine Kate as more than just a collection of bad habits. When the film opens, Kate and husband Charlie (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul, who gets less to do than you’d expect) are on the latest of many benders. Their marriage is fueled by alcohol; their entire social life depends on it. Kate only comes to realize the severity of their problem when a string of late nights (one involving a crack pipe) results in a disastrous hangover on the job. Resolving to kick booze for good, she finds an ally in co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), himself an ex-addict. As Kate begins to work on staying sober, Charlie remains unmoved by the prospect, preferring to keep the habit. As Kate finds solace in the process of group healing through AA, she comes to realize that the process of recovery may mean more than substituting cupcakes for shots.

In an age where comedies, whether studio or indie, tend to feel like a loosely knit collection of takes of ostensibly funny people riffing with each other, Smashed feels refreshingly taut in its construction, possibl because no matter how ribald the dialogue may get at times, it takes its characters and their lives and choices seriously. It’s also refreshing to see a film, especially a comedy, that follows through on the notion of personal responsibility without feeling like an after-school special; Kate finds herself in one crisis point after another, and must contend with her family, friends, peers, and her own demons at every turn, while owning it when she screws up. It’s hard to imagine a more marked contrast to the he-man hedonists of The Hangover.

Thankfully, despite some marked lows (including a very public act of urination), Smashed is also surprisingly funny, especially thanks to Offerman’s Dave, who turns out to not entirely the straightforward, helpful gentleman he appears to be. (Offerman’s wife, Megan Mulally, plays the school principal, but her role is straighter.) Also warm and genuine are Kate’s scenes with her sponsor, played by Octavia Spencer; again, these are scenes that might have rung false, but Spencer grounds the performance nicely and the two have an easy rapport that doesn’t downplay the significant pain both characters have felt.

If Smashed falls short, it’s only out of a surprising well of ambition: in trying to be a portrait of kicking an addiction, young-professional malaise, and the crumbling of a marriage, the film buckles, especially given its paltry 85-minute runtime. An increased focus on Charlie and his stubborn refusal to change may have been called for, especially as the film’s heartrending final scenes rely heavily on our investment in their marriage. Regardless, Smashed is a carefully measured take on a topic normally handled with a sledgehammer.

Simon Howell


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