Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 1 hr 21 mins
Due Out: March 12, 2013
PLOT: An alcoholic schoolteacher (Winstead) decides it’s time to sober up. Her quest for sobriety puts a strain on her life and marriage.
WHO’S IT FOR? Those who are looking for a good drama that balances a lighter side shouldn’t regret watching Smashed. Fans of Mary Elizabeth Winstead should walk away loving her more, and skeptics just might be won over.
Smashed is a very good second feature from James Ponsoldt. It’s not flawless, but my problems are mostly confined to the opening fifteen minutes. So, like the film, I want to get my issues out of the way first. That way I can spend most of my time delivering praise.
One thing I found a little difficult to swallow is the idea that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate has been able to hold down her teaching job. Yes, I understand there are functioning alcoholics. It’s one thing for her to pee the bed, lie, and sneak drinks in the shower. When it becomes smoking crack and waking up under a bridge, that’s when I start to question how she’s made it this far. I suppose it only takes one major incident to realize you need a change. Thankfully, that’s what the slightly problematic start leads to.
The majority of the film is packed with stellar scenes dealing with the repercussions of Kate’s alcohol abuse. Guiding us through it all is a group of actors operating at the top of their game. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is in nearly every scene, and she doesn’t hit a false note. Whether she’s drunkenly riding a bike, dealing with her mother’s skepticism, or portraying the disappointment and hurt that comes from the growing divide in her marriage, Winstead nails it.
Kate does some bad things. It’s a testament to Winstead and the non-judgmental script by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke that we still root for this woman to get the help she needs in order to move forward. Moving forward means her marriage to Aaron Paul’s enabling Charlie is put to the test. Charlie could easily have come off unlikeable for not appearing fully on board with Kate’s desire to get sober. In Paul’s talented hands, however, that’s not an issue. While Winstead is operating on a different level from anything she’s done before – I say that as a fan – Paul delivers a strong performance that’s similar to his work as America’s favorite meth manufacturer on “Breaking Bad.” The chemistry he has with Winstead feels authentic, something that makes a couple heartbreaking scenes near the end extra powerful.
Supporting performances from Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, and Megan Mullally continue the trend of authenticity. Spencer’s sponsor provides great support, both to the film and to Kate. Trading in Ron Effing Swanson’s exquisite mustache for a goatee (this is amusingly discussed on the DVD commentary), Offerman plays the vice principal at Kate’s school. A former alcoholic himself, he’s the one who gets Kate involved in AA. He adds a lot of charm, which makes one completely unnecessary moment between the two of them stick out. That aside, these three deserve credit for preventing their characters from being as one note as they might otherwise be.
One of the film’s best aspects is that it’s not afraid to be humorous. Winstead talks on the commentary about the humor present at AA meetings she attended while preparing for her role. That ties into an earlier moment in which she said, “Everybody has a sense of humor. Everybody can be goofy and silly at times.” She’s right, and it’s nice that a film dealing with a serious topic like alcoholism doesn’t leave out the little moments of levity inherent to life. If it was 81 minutes of emotional scenes like the first AA meeting or her wailing, “I can’t be sober and be with you,” it would likely be an even bigger showcase for the actress. It just wouldn’t have as much heart. Small moments like Kate and Charlie drunkenly riding their bicycles and being excited to see a clown drive by, those are the light touches that help make Smashed the success it is.
A film full of authenticity, respect, and humanity, Smashed serves as a statement from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a promise of great things to come from James Ponsoldt.
MOVIE SCORE: 8/10
Commentary with Director James Ponsoldt & Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Toronto Film Festival Red Carpet and Q&A