Alcoholism is a disease with many faces and names to it. For Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) in Smashed, it is their way of life and the foundation of their marriage. They drink together, laugh a lot, have passionate sex, and keep the good times running. It becomes scary to Kate, however, when she starts waking up on the street blacked out; she even comes into work as a school teacher completely hungover. This gets worse when she pukes in front of her class and lies to her students and her boss, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), and says that she is pregnant. This all leads her to believe she needs to get some help. Fortunately the vice principal, Dave Davis (Nick Offerman), is a former alcoholic and gets her involved in AA.
She actually starts to do better from the meetings. She takes on a sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), and gets to a point where she has stopped drinking. Unfortunately, Charlie does not follow her lead. He, unlike her, comes from money and works at home writing articles on bands, which gives him a great excuse for going to bars to drink and have a good time. He doesn’t see a need to change his lifestyle when so much of his life still works. This of course causes frictions in the marriage. Kate never tries to force Charlie to change, but she sees how their lives are different. Winstead gives a clear view of her fear as she relates to the AA group her attitude towards alcohol, while we see how addicted she is to the life. We also see the problems that it has caused her. Now she and Charlie start to argue. She sees how immature he can be, being unable to talk with her. He can’t even stay awake during their love making.
Charlie is more complex than most people in this role—he is clearly not the bad guy. He cares deeply for his wife and can be supportive, yet when he gets drunk he is unable to be there for her. This is also hard because before, drinking was something they shared together, and now that they are losing that, he is confused on how to proceed. He gets angry, but he never becomes abusive. But by simply being a drunk, he is hurting Kate.
Director James Ponsoldt has a great method of reflecting the mood in his characters by inserting lighter music as we see the fun times Kate and Charlie have together as they ride their bikes down the road and dance in the yard playing croquet. He also contrasts these light moments with some fast-moving camera movements to show off the highs and lows of Kate’s and Charlie’s relationship. When Kate and Charlie first talk over the possibility of her getting help, Ponsoldt keeps his camera circulating between characters, creating a dizzying effect that matches the all-over-the-place intensity of what his characters are going through. When Kate starts talking about her issues as she sees them to the group, the camera slowly pans in closer and closer as she starts to unveil her true fears.
Despite the talent shown here, there is a sense that something is missing. Many of Kate’s transformations are done quickly through montages, and a big section is skipped over near the end of the film that creates a very disorienting effect that feels unearned. While Winstead and Paul are given many moments to shine, the supporting cast is almost more of an afterthought. Spencer is given little to do despite her being the person Kate is taking advice from. We never see what she really does for Kate, and Nick Offerman as Dave has some choice one-liners that make him more than the white knight to save Kate, but he really has nothing more to do than be her vehicle towards recovery.
Winstead is the true heart here, with almost no scene being without her. She can go from being a happy drunk having the time of her life, to deep pain and worry about what drinking is doing to her. We see her when she is at her lowest, desperate to get alcohol and unable to control her bladder, to being the fun teacher all first graders can hope for, making simple spelling fun. We are slowly given details of her past that give strength to how she ended up at this point in her life. She is helped by having Paul to bounce off of. He never gets too douchey in his attitude in AA, and though they give some of his history, it feels a bit more tacked-on than the slow reveal of Winstead.
This film is more about their relationship than about alcoholism. This is a couple that works, but only when they are indulging in a habit that hurts them in everything else they do. What makes this feel real is the loneliness that is reflected in both Kate and Charlie. They had each other, and now situations that are helpful in making Kate’s life better are hurting the most important relationship she has. It is hard to watch, but as the story unfolds, it has some of the strongest true moments on film this year.
Final Grade: B+