Critic’s rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Rated R by the MPAA. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullally and Mary Kay Place. Opens Wed., Nov. 21 at area theaters.
Opening on married couple Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) lying on urine-soaked sheets after a night of drinking, Smashed wastes little time setting up its main conflict. Charlie works from home and seems unfazed by the squalor of it all, while a hung-over Kate reluctantly gets up for work, guzzling a beer while shaving her legs and washing her hair.
The early portion of Smashed is all about escalation, with scenes beginning innocently enough — a tipsy bit of karaoke, drunken kisses, and a random act of kindness — before turning much more serious. It’s clear that drinking is a bonding experience for Charlie and Kate, but it’s also clear (at least to the audience and to Kate) that after a certain point she can’t control herself. Kate says it best during her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: things that used to be funny, albeit embarrassing, turn scary very quickly.
So with the help of a coworker (Nick Offerman) and a sponsor (Octavia Spencer), Kate begins the tough road to sobriety. She does this while Charlie continues to drink to his heart’s content. This is a recipe for disaster, of course, and a major part of Kate’s journey is reconciling her desire to change with Charlie’s lack of desire to do the same. Smashed is a convincing portrayal of a young woman coping with alcoholism. One key exception — in my opinion as a witness of alcoholism growing up — is that Kate doesn’t seem to struggle with the urge to drink as much as one would expect, especially considering she lives with a husband drinking regularly in her presence. Yes, there’s a negative shift in their relationship, but she never really appears tempted to join him. So, when Kate finally arrives at the realization that she can’t stay with a still-drinking Charlie if she wants to be sober, it doesn’t feel completely earned. Despite this one, fairly fundamental flaw, the rest of Kate’s struggle feels authentic, and the actors make up for any weakness to the plot.
Winstead and Paul are both heartrending in their performances, though Paul’s performance isn’t much of a departure from his role on Breaking Bad. Sure, Charlie’s not a drug dealer with a few murders under his belt, but he is struggling with substance abuse and clearly loves Kate very much. Offerman does a great job as the coworker who introduces Kate to his AA circle, though the screenplay takes his character on an uncomfortable path that doesn’t seem necessary to the story. As for Spencer’s character, she’s sensitive but practical — the polar opposite of Kate’s own mother and exactly what a recovering alcoholic needs.
With strong performances and a convincing, genuine story arc that will be relatable to many, Smashed is a touching indie film that’s worth seeing.