Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: "Smashed"

Ever since Ray Milland first showed us the sweaty shakes of a desperate drinker in "The Lost Weekend" nearly 70 years ago, alcoholism has been a favorite, recurring subject for Hollywood. "Smashed" doesn't really add anything innovative to the picture, but this indie drama is still an unnerving portrayal, buoyed by a terrific performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Probably the biggest departure is that the drunks in "Smashed" are not suicidal or obviously self-destructive, a la "Leaving Las Vegas." Rather, they're functional alcoholics who manage to hold jobs and have relatively stable lives, while consuming astonishing quantities of booze.

To Kate (Winstead) and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), drinking is a lifestyle choice, not an addiction. They were raised with boozing parents, drank socially all through their teens and early 20s, and have just kept the party going.

"Everyone I know drinks. A lot," Kate confides.

Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Susan Burke, focuses on Kate, and it's through her eyes we glimpse her cherished sense of normalcy slowly crumbling. Charlie remains a secondary character, a good-hearted guy from a wealthy family who's never had to earn anything in his life. When Kate finally makes a vow to change her life for the better and swear off booze, Charlie isn't willing to make the same leap, forcing a heavy choice on her.

The story opens with Kate waking up hung over and running late for work. It turns out she's a first-grade schoolteacher, and a good one who brings genuine enthusiasm to the classroom. But her drinking catches up with her, and she vomits in front of her kids.

Worse yet, when one of the tykes asks if she's pregnant, she assents rather than tell the truth. Unfortunately, it gets back to her principal (Megan Mullally), and the small white lie blossoms into a parade of deceit.

Dave (Nick Offerman), a co-worker who's been sober for nine years, encourages her to go to AA meetings, and that's where things really move into a higher plane. Winstead's performance during her first talk is a mix of brutal honesty, fear and a touch of despair.

Here is a young, smart woman who's forcing herself to face up to the fact that the things she used to do for fun are increasingly becoming what is harming her. It's a revelatory scene, almost giddy in its honesty and authenticity.

Octavia Spencer has a strong, small turn as Kate's AA mentor, and Mary Kay Place shows up as her mother -- and a frightening glimpse into her own possible future.

At a crisp 81 minutes, the film leaves some areas underexplored, especially Kate's relationship with Charlie. But "Smashed" works as more of a harrowing character portrait than a full-throated narrative.

3 stars out of four

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