Smashed follows Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), a young married couple with a mutual love for alcohol. After one fateful night and horrific morning-after experience, Kate decides to go sober. She has Charlie’s support, but unfortunately has to do it alone. And despite various hurdles getting in her way, Kate strives towards sobriety.
Smashed is a very small film (smaller than I thought it would be) focused on its characters. It paints a realistic and authentic look at what it is like for an alcoholic to attempt sobriety. For the most part, it is a genuinely affecting, heartfelt drama with a lot of comedy sprinkled in. Writer/Director James Ponsoldt strived for realism in creating the characters and situations (along with co-writer Susan Burke), and they ring true to any of the stories you may have heard or experienced for yourself.
Winstead, whose only real experience as a lead came from the unfortunate prequel to The Thing, is absolutely wonderful as Kate. We only get hints at her struggle to overcome alcoholism, but she lights up the screen with her infectious performance. We want to see her succeed, and as the problems start piling up, we feel for her. Winstead is excellent as the lead, and has an insane amount of chemistry with just about everyone on-screen. This is her real breakthrough performance, bringing a great hint of authenticity to the role. She shines through every scene, even during her most torturous ordeals.
Paul, already known for his fantastic supporting work on Breaking Bad, turns in a surprisingly subtle and mellow performance as Kate’s husband Charlie. From early on, we know he is a bad influence on Kate and is not really all there due to his drinking problem. And as the film goes on, he does a great job of being examined and questioned at every turn. But never once does he waver from his happy, confused drunk state. His low-key work is a bit understated in comparison to Winstead’s knack for stealing every scene she appears in, but he manages to remain spot-on throughout, providing yet another great supporting turn.
Smaller turns from Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullally and Mary Kay Place are all well done no matter the size of the role. Nick Offerman is a bit of a curiosity though, as he seems to stumble around almost at random between being the comic relief and the deadly serious voice of reason. His character, Dave, is one of the most important in the film as he is the one who helps convince Kate to become sober. But his real character defining moment comes during an odd conversation between Kate and himself.
What happens may seem hysterically funny at first (at least the crowd in my theatre thought so), but afterwards came off as totally weird and out of place. It is a very two handed performance that does not always converge together as well as it should, but considering his resume is filled mostly with comedies, it is no surprise that his performance is not always as good as it could be.
But that odd character is the least of Smashed’s problems. The conflicting tones throughout wreak havoc on the film. At no point do Ponsoldt or Burke seem to have any idea if they want to make a light dramedy or a significantly darker character piece that really puts Kate through hell and high water. She does struggle for a good chunk of the film, but never did I feel there was anything really deeply affecting going on. Her addiction to alcohol is supposed to be so deep seated that she shockingly smokes crack early on because of being under the influence. But then they just use the event as a punch line and nothing more. When the real emotional crescendo finally happens and it looks like the film is about to take the dark turn we have been waiting for all along, it inexplicably cuts to black, wraps things up, and ends. I had to do a double take when the credits started because it genuinely felt like 20-30 minutes of the movie were missing.
In that respect, the film feels ridiculously stunted and held back from truly being what the early reviews out of Sundance suggested it was. It has all the right elements in place and an emotional storyline, but after the random ending, it all felt like everything went to waste. Ponsoldt mentioned in the Q&A after the film how they strived for accuracy in making the film realistic to the plight of those involved with Alcoholics Anonymous. But the film is much too glossy to really say anything of value. It was great how much research went into the creation of the film, but what was the point if the filmmakers barely use any of it? I may be missing the point Ponsoldt was trying to make, but the final product screams of a missed opportunity more than anything else.
I wanted to love Smashed, but I remain baffled at how stunted it feels. Winstead is terrific, Paul is wonderfully subtle and surprisingly low-key, and the entire supporting cast is great. But what emotional resonance the film has is almost entirely stripped away by the genuinely disappointing finale that hits significantly sooner than it should. Should the film have been longer, it likely would have made a better, lasting impression; one that would have mattered, instead of turning the film into something nearly forgettable.