There have been so many addiction and recovery stories in the past decade that it's entirely reasonable to think we don't need another. As singer-songwriter Mike Doughty writes in his recent drug-filled memoir The Book of Drugs, the title of Caroline Knapp's book, Drinking: A Love Story, says it all.
How refreshing it is then that Smashed, though it travels down well-trod paths, at least does it smartly, with an insider's knowledge of how addiction works and how recovery works as well.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a schoolteacher who goes out—or stays in—drinking each night with her husband, Charlie (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul). She wakes up not knowing where she is once too often, urinates in public, sings drunkenly.
While Charlie seems to be a run-of-the-mill drunk, Kate seems to get into serious trouble. One day, when she vomits in front of her class, a student asks whether she's pregnant. Kate, in a panic, says yes.
That's just one of the many stupid things Kate does while drinking. Another is stealing wine from her local convenience store. Another still is smoking crack with a woman she meets at a bar.
The vice principal (Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman) of Kate's school witnesses her drinking in her car before work. He reveals that he's been sober for nine years and would take her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting if she wanted to go.
So, she goes. What happens next is the standard stuff of alcoholism and addiction stories, but where Smashed succeeds is in the way Kate's friends and family change around her the longer she's sober.
Charlie, too, has his problems. This is a guy who eats ketchup soup—I've heard stranger things—because he can't be bothered to shop for food or buy food instead of alcohol. He has a wealthy family and is content to write music stories for a small paper, hang out with bands and drink with his brother.
Winstead is game for the challenge of playing someone who's trying to better her life while not making it so difficult for those around her. One of the things Smashed does well is chronicle the changes—first subtle, then in-your-face—of Kate and Charlie's relationship.
It becomes clear these two have little in common aside from bourbon and beer.
Co-writers James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke wisely avoid turning Kate into a sage or treating her with reverence, and Charlie's behavior devolves in ways that seem natural.
The sagely stuff is left for Jenny (Octavia Spencer), who meets Kate at an AA meeting and eventually becomes her sponsor. Thankfully, though, the sagely stuff is limited, and Spencer imbues Jenny with the tiredness of someone who is, quite literally, living one day at a time and dealing with the wreckage of her past.
Smashed's creators make another smart decision in making the movie short and stripping it of any sentiment.
Just when we think things will turn out rosy for Kate, circumstances change. Kate's story arc dealing with Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), her boss, becomes more and more cringe-worthy with each passing moment. Refreshingly, they make the experience as much of a squirm for Kate as they do for the audience.
Dramatizing alcoholism and addiction is a challenge—anyone who's seen the terrible Sandra Bullock vehicle 28 Days knows that—and the filmmakers toe the line between comedy and tragedy well throughout. That they do it so expertly suggests they have insiders' knowledge of alcoholism—or great imaginations or they've seen Days of Wine and Roses.
Whatever the reason, Smashed is a rewarding experience.
Those inclined to look at Kate with a gimlet eye or who just went through Thanksgiving with their drunk uncle may want to skip it. But for those who like their despair laced with humor, hope and an ambiguous ending, it's worth its 85-minute run time.
Directed by James Ponsoldt / With Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul / UA DeVargas Center 6 / R / 85 min.