Smashed Review

(2.5 STARS)

To convincingly play drunk is one of an actor’s greatest challenges. Too often, an onscreen alcoholic comes off as loud, abrasive, and goofy—which would be spot-on if it all didn’t feel so forced. Denzel Washington dialed the drunk act down in last year’s Flight—a borderline remarkable film led by an unquestionably remarkable performance.

In James Ponsoldt’s Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, falls back on some of the typical characteristics of the movie drunk listed above, but it’s a performance no less remarkable than Washington’s—if for no other reason than the fact that she lifts an otherwise mediocre film into something borderline passable.

Winstead plays Kate, a first-grade teacher with a serious problem. She wakes up late every morning—sometimes on the street—and rushes to gulp down as much whiskey as possible before stepping in front of her class. One morning, an awful hangover causes her to vomit in front of her kids. She tells them she’s pregnant, which excites the school’s principal (Megan Mullally), but assistant principal Dave (Nick Offerman) spotted her drinking in her car that morning. A recovering alcoholic himself, he promises to keep her secret and offers to take her to AA meetings if she has any interest in sobering up.

The biggest obstacle to Kate’s sobriety is Charlie (Aaron Paul), her husband. He works from home and spends most of the day with a beer bottle (or two) within arm’s reach. And he scoffs when she tells him she’s interested in going to meetings. He’s not an evil guy; He just has his priorities awfully mixed up. Paul’s performance is a deceptive one. When Charlie thinks he’s in charge (most of the film), he’s aloof and a bit of an asshole. When the rug inevitably gets pulled out from underneath him, his broken heart is convincing enough to break yours.

From beginning to end, however, it’s Winstead’s show. Ponsoldt (directing just his second feature film) steps way back and gives the reins of this picture to his young starlet. She’s been good before—in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and even The Thing—but she hasn’t even been in the same room with a performance this good before.

Part of it definitely is the believable nature of the way she blacks out drunk, but the film’s one unquestionably A+ scene is her first AA meeting. She’s as sober as a cup of coffee, and you see her transform in one long take from politely there but slightly rebellious to “Damn, I really do have a problem.” It’s revelatory stuff, and even when the film around her isn’t clicking, you can’t take your eyes of Winstead.

The performances can only do so much, however, when you’ve got a film that feels drawn out at a mere 80 minutes. Ponsoldt (who cowrote the screenplay with Susan Burke) lets scenes without any real dramatic or character-building purpose play out longer than necessary. Smashed feels about two hours long, as a result, and because very few of the film’s beats are surprising, it sort of limps to its conclusion (which ironically feels rushed and unsatisfying).

Smashed is ultimately worth a watch because of Winstead, Paul, and (to a lesser degree, if only because they don’t get as much screen time) Mullally, Offerman, and Octavia Spencer (playing Kate’s sponsor). But for those of you put off by Flight‘s so-called cliches, beware of this one.

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