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NPR Arts & Life

Getting Merrily 'Smashed,' And Then Crashing

Kate and Charlie (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul), a young married couple, stumble down Kate's path to sobriety.
Kate and Charlie (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul), a young married couple, stumble down Kate's path to sobriety.

"Hi, I'm Kate, and I'm an alcoholic."

When Kate, an elementary-school teacher played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gives the requisite confession in her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, she laughs her way through it. It's the laugh of a casual drinker, like someone whose bar-hopping odyssey has left her passed out on a neighbor's lawn, apologizing with a grin and a shrug the next morning. She's young, she likes to blow off a little steam, and she can hardly believe that all those good times have landed her here, in front of people who are presumably much worse off than she is. For Kate, saying those words is like an out-of-body experience.

Actors have a history of digging into alcoholics as voraciously as a porterhouse, from Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend to Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, but Winstead's extraordinary performance in Smashed strikes a more particular note. As that first monologue at AA continues, Winstead's Kate becomes steadily more emotional, like she's finally listening to herself for the first time — and realizing, now that she's being honest about it, just how far she's fallen. Winstead plays this pivotal scene with a thrilling openness to wherever Kate's wayward journey is going to take her. In acting terms, she's very much "in the moment."

The truthfulness of Winstead's performance — and those of her co-stars, too — has a steadying influence on James Ponsoldt's modest drama, which at times seems in danger of failing a sobriety test. Ponsoldt, who scripted with Susan Burke, makes a few missteps, one of them major, but the core of Smashed is a perceptive and moving treatment of a specific strain of alcoholism and the ways the recovery process can leave its own kind of wreckage.

As the film opens, Kate manages a double life: By day, she's an earthy grade-school teacher in pattern dresses and sensible shoes; by night, she and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), are happy drunks who keep the party going until closing time or blackout, whatever comes first. But lately, the two lives have been bleeding together, with Kate furtively swigging from a flask in the school parking lot and teaching kids with a buzz on. When she throws up in class one morning, Kate covers by telling the principal (Megan Mullally) she's pregnant, but Dave (a superb Nick Offerman), a colleague in recovery, quietly encourages her to join his AA group.

Kate lies to her boss, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), about being pregnant in order to hide her drinking problem.
Oana Marian / Sony Pictures Classics
Kate lies to her boss, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), about being pregnant in order to hide her drinking problem.

There are ups and downs to Kate's recovery — the scenes of bottoming out are as harrowing as they come — but Ponsoldt puts the strongest emphasis on Kate's relationship with her husband, who has chosen not to take this journey with her. Seeing Charlie clown merrily around the house in a sea of empties is a toxic environment for Kate, both for the temptation to slip and the estrangement she feels from her favorite drinking buddy. And it's not fair for Charlie either, who can only stand by helplessly as his life is upended without his input. Ponsoldt treats both characters fairly and honestly, without missing the warm rapport and chemistry that can still assert itself amid the heartbreak.

Smashed errs badly, however, in the fake-pregnancy subplot, which seems ported over from the broader realm of television sitcoms. It doesn't help that Mullally, primarily known as a TV actress — and very funny recently on Parks and Recreation and Party Down — hasn't got a naturalistic bone in her body. Her manic enthusiasm over Kate's pregnancy leaves Smashed grasping for a lightness that surfaces more organically in other places, and the whole affair upsets the balance between the fallouts at work and home.

Still, there's a modesty to Smashed that's ultimately winning: At under 90 minutes, it feels disciplined and well-proportioned, concerning itself with defining the contours of Kate's life before and after recovery, and simply leaving it at that. Films about addiction tend to answer the excesses of drugs or alcohol with excesses of their own, but Ponsoldt and Winstead aren't guilty of overreaching. They know when to say when.

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