Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally,
Alcoholism is not a laughing matter. It’s a disease that effects millions of Americans and ruins many more lives. Dealing with this sensitive subject can be tricky but a sure-hand behind the camera can make it work. Sadly, in the newest film from filmmaker James Ponsoldt, “Smashed,” it deals with alcoholism in a quick and easy way, reaching for a strange tonal balance I don’t feel the film pulls off completely. But in saying that, there’s still a lot of good in this movie I can recommend but don’t expect it to be the filmmaking.
“Smashed” is the story of Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an alcoholic, first grade teacher, trying to make up for her past mistakes in her personal life, with her alcoholic husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), and her professional life, with her Vice Principal, Dave (Nick Offerman) and Principal, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally). From the start of the movie, we, as the audience, get a glimpse of Kate’s life. She drinks while she takes a shower and drinks before school, all stemming from the night before’s drink bout. She has a real problem, which escalates to a frightening fever pitch, which involve heavier drug use.
What I find so fascinating with this story is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance of Kate. She give a powerful on here! Her journey from alcoholism to sobriety is quite riveting but is hindered with the direction of the film. Director James Ponsoldt seems to be taking a lot of shortcuts to dramatic and emotional catharsis, which will not resonate with audiences. Taking the easy way out and not showing how Kate struggles with sobriety is maddening to me. This transition happens in a far too convenient montage with lends nothing to an audience’s emotional tie to the character. It’s cheap and is a waste of such a explicit performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
This film also has trouble trying to find a tonal balance between the obvious drama of the film and the comedic moments that are peppered in it. The comedy plays too cartoonish to take seriously, only minutes after real heavy emotional moments. What is going on here? A perfect example of balancing drama and comedy in a movie dealing with a sensitive subject matter is Jonathan Levine’s “50/50.” In “50/50,” the world is created for comedy, where it is allowed, by introducing the audience to the movie in a funny and interesting way. It is only after that, we can appreciate Adam’s dramatic journey with cancer. In “Smashed,” the tone is set early on as far too heavy to throw in this brand of broad humor. I found myself questioning the purpose of it and I was left directionless.
In saying that, I still recommend seeing “Smashed” if you can. There is enough here for anyone to take away the dangers of alcoholism. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. And smartly, Ponsoldt plays off the expectation of an audience for Winstead by subverting what we would usual get from her. We have never seen her in a movie quite like this. This movie can also serve as a cautionary tale to future filmmakers, taking shortcuts to an emotional resolution is cheap and lazy.