Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul star in this booze-binging bad romance from filmmaker-to-watch James Ponsoldt. Young couple Kate and Charlie always have a grand old time drinking and partying. Somehow they’ve found a synergy in their alcohol and occasional drug-induced stupors. When Kate (who teaches math to first graders) shows up to class hung over and throwing up, it marks the start of a series of wake-up calls that forces her to reevaluate her life and choices. Kate gets help in AA but quickly realizes that it’s difficult for her to climb those twelve steps when her partner is more toxic than the booze she’s trying so desperately to avoid. Ponsoldt’s film is heartbreaking, sweet and sad, featuring brilliant performances from both Winstead and Paul. The film also stars Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman and Kyle Gallner.
First and foremost, Winstead is exquisite in the role of restless Kate. Her performance never came off like an act and there was none of the overaffected dramatization that usually comes with an actor trying to portray an alcoholic. When her character finally acknowledged her alcoholism, the defeated look on her face was enough to convey to audiences the embarrassment she felt in her admission. All the stages of dealing with alcoholism were present, but never in endless or unnecessary exposition. Instead, Ponsoldt used Winstead’s great acting range to show things like denial, bargaining and acceptance. Winstead was really impressive in this film and I hope to see her in more of these types of challenging roles. As for Kate’s not-so-better half, there couldn’t have been a more perfect Charlie than Aaron Paul, whose work in Breaking Bad has equipped him with experience that enables him to show off really subtle but strong performances. His chemistry with Winstead leapt off the screen and there was an obvious comfort level between the two actors that made their romance endearing to watch. Paul is effortlessly charming, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him in the role of the facetious Charlie.
Alcoholism has been portrayed so many times and in so many different ways on film before, but Smashed is like a breath of fresh air. There’s something different about this story, and unlike most tales involving battles with liquor, its protagonist’s plight is neither maudlin nor desperate for sympathy, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching. I liked that it explored the different journeys of the two lovers, expounding on the oft-told warning about what happens when one half of a couple sobers up. I do wish, however, that the film spent more time exploring the distance that can develop when only one person in the relationship seems to be moving forward. I also thought there wasn’t enough devoted to showing how all-consuming this kind of relationship can be. For some reason I wanted to see “Love the Way You Lie”-type passion between Kate and Charlie, which I felt would have helped the audience understand how difficult it is to be part of a relationship that feels so good yet is so bad for you. This particular aspect sort of hit home for me, so I had wanted to see this play out a little bit more on screen, however this is but a minor quibble.
As for the rest of the cast, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally were pretty entertaining. Both provided light touches to the film that weren’t overdone and that fit in well with the rest of the material. I liked the sort of wistful ending of the film, too and thought it left audiences wanting more in just the right way. I also liked that the film doesn’t paint sobriety as the rosy picture that it is often depicted to be. It showcases the painstaking work that goes into staying sober while also ridding your life of anchors that may weigh you down. The movie also had a lot of well-composed shots and great lighting, both combining to give off this vibe of a terrible hangover one gets after an exhilarating night of partying. I would recommend Smashed to those who liked Blue Valentine or Leaving Las Vegas. I am excited to see Ponsold’t upcoming film The Spectacular Now, which will also feature Mary Elizabeth Winstead.