Surely there’s an audience for writer/director James Ponsoldt’s indie film about a pair of alcoholics whose marriage is tested when one of them decides to enter alcoholics anonymous, I’m just not sure it’s me. I love genre movies: noirs, action flicks, horror movies, and science fiction extravaganzas. Every once in a while I’ll gush over a grim drama like Shame or The Last Ride, but I typically recoil from movies that attempt to depict life in all its bleakness. I go the movies to temporarily escape real life, not to be smothered by it. Smashed is a well-made, well-acted little movie that’s a little too realistic and a little too perceptive for my tastes.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul play Kate and Charlie Hannah, a married couple who love each other almost as much as they love alcohol. The two spend their nights boozing it up with their friends and behaving like overgrown, unsupervised children. Kate spends her weekdays teaching at an elementary school while Charlie, unemployed, lies around recovering from the hangover each morning brings. When Kate returns home from work, the two begin the cycle anew.
The two seem happy with their arrangement. Winstead and Paul share a natural chemistry, and they make their characters likable even while those characters are behaving irresponsibly. One gets the impression that Kate and Charlie bonded over alcohol early on as teenagers and simply never matured beyond that point. They’re clearly best friends in addition to being spouses. It’s a different portrayal of a dysfunctional couple than what we’re typically exposed to in movies.
However, the couple’s inebriated bliss comes to an end after a drunken Kate vomits in front of her students. She plays the incident off by claiming she’s pregnant. The next evening, she again goes out with her husband and gets so drunk that she ends up smoking crack. After waking up under a bridge the next morning, she begins to realize that she might have a drinking problem. The rest of the film deals with Kate attempting to maintain a life of sobriety while her drunken husband chastises her for being boring. It’s not that he wants her to fail; he just misses his drinking partner.
Smashed avoids feeling like an afterschool special thanks to an unconventional script from James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke with strong performances from Winstead and Paul. Aaron Paul has already excelled at playing an addict on the utterly stellar Breaking Bad so his performance here is no revelation; however, this movie showcases the best performance Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s young career. Both actors have to play drunk, but they mostly underplay it, and as a result, they avoid becoming clichés.
There’s nothing particularly inept about the picture, but there’s not much to draw attention to it, either. It’s well-researched, well-written, and well-made, and yet it’s also drab. If the movie suffers from any major faults, it’s just that it’s a little too aimless. There really isn’t any structure to the movie, it just sort of unfolds like real life. Kate and Charlie aren’t bad people. Their weaknesses may be infuriating, but they aren’t malicious. They aren’t hurting anyone other than themselves and truth be told, they’re largely functional even when they’re hammered. It’s easy to see why they view alcohol as more of a hobby than a life threatening problem. Because the stakes aren’t that high and because there isn’t a sense of immediacy to the picture, it’s hard to stay invested.
However, there’s not anything to really condemn about the picture either. The performances and direction are solid and the screenplay tenderly and intelligently handles the subject of alcoholism. Further, Smashed avoids proselytizing in the manner that last year’s Flight did. Still, I just can’t quite bring myself to recommend the movie. It’s well-intentioned and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t exactly lift the spirit or entertain. It’ll appeal to lovers of serious dramas, but it won’t be remembered.