Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie Review: Smashed

Directed by: James Ponsoldt.
Written by: Susan Burke & James Ponsoldt.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Kate Hannah), Aaron Paul (Charlie Hannah), Octavia Spencer (Jenny), Nick Offerman (Dave Davies), Megan Mullally (Principal Barnes), Mary Kay Place (Rochelle), Kyle Gallner (Owen Hannah), Bree Turner (Freda).

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a great face. I don’t just mean a beautiful face, although that is undeniably true, but an open and honest face. It’s something in her eyes, which just scream out for sympathy and understanding. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, without every knowing precisely why – since beside her performance in Tarantino’s Death Proof, I cannot say she’s been great in anything (and even there, it could be because she spends the entirety of her performance in a cheerleading outfit). But finally in Smashed, she has been given a great role. The movie itself is a fairly typical story of a recovering alcoholic, although a well-made and honest one, with a little bit of a twist. But the reason to see the movie is Winstead, who is great.

Winstead plays Kate Hannah, a first grade teacher who has been an alcoholic for years. We first meet her stumbling out a bar and meeting a girl sobbing in the parking lot – who invites herself along for a ride home. Although Kate is just an alcoholic, and not a drug addict, she ends up smoking crack with this woman, and waking up the next day not knowing where she is. She decides it’s time to slow down a little bit – cut back on the drinking, and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) says sure, why not? He’s an alcoholic as well, but doesn’t view it as a problem. The slowing down doesn’t work, and soon Kate is just as drunk as ever, ends up peeing on the floor of a convenience store when the clerk won’t sell her the alcohol she wants, and then puking in front of her first graders the next day. When one of them innocently asks if she’s pregnant – because her mommy puked when she was pregnant with their little brother – Kate decides it’s better than admitting the truth and says she is. This gets back to the principal (Megan Mullally), who is happy for her. The only person who sees through Kate’s lies is VP Dave Davies (Nick Offerman), a recovering alcoholic himself, who invites her along to a meeting. She goes – and soon has decided to stop drinking altogether. From this point, the movie becomes a fairly standard recovering alcoholic movie – complete with relapses – but one with a little twist- everything was fine with Kate when she was a drunk – it’s when she gets sober that her life crumbles around her.

Smashed is not a particularly original look at alcoholism – it doesn’t transcend the genre like a film such as Leaving Las Vegas does. But it is an honest examination about what it means to be an alcoholic, and how tough it is to get sober. When you’re drunk all the time, you don’t consider the consequences of your actions – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how you’re drinking effects yourself or those around you. When you’re sober though, those questions become more important. So as Kate gets sober, and sees her husband still nearly constantly drunk, she starts to question the strength of their relationship. Are they simply together because both of them like to drink, and marrying your drinking buddy essentially means you never have to drink alone. It’s no fun to be the only sober person at a party, and that is essentially what Kate’s life becomes. No wonder she throws herself into those AA meetings and the friends she meets there – she knows no one else, not even her mother, who isn’t constantly drinking.

Winstead is great in the scenes where she is drunk. She is the type of drunk who thinks she is the life of the party – that she is funny, charming and everyone loves her. In reality, she is loud, incoherent and kind of a bitch when she’s drunk – she’s just too drunk to notice it. Her performance goes beyond the slurred speech and the stumbling of many movie drunks – she is the type of drunk I used to see during my limited trips to the bar in my college days. Once she gets sober, she starts to see the people around her how people must have viewed her – and she doesn’t like it. For his part, I also quite liked Aaron Paul, from Breaking Bad. Yes, Charlie is a drunk. But he’s not a mean or abusive drunk – just a thoughtless one. He is, in fact, a nice guy. The last scene in the movie implies that maybe this entire movie, with a different protagonist, is about to start again.

Smashed is a fine movie that is elevated by Winstead’s great performance. There have been a lot of movie drunks over the years – next to making a movie about the Holocaust or playing a handicapped person, playing a drunk is the best way to get yourself an Oscar nomination. But Winstead’s performance is genuinely great in this movie. You feel sympathy for her, you root for her to succeed and at times just want to give her hug. She looks like she needs one.

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