Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
Runtime: 85 minutes
Smashed is a film that frustrated me. While there’s a decent message at the heart of Susan Burke’s screenplay, it never feels like it gets to take prominence. The film feels too wrapped up in showcasing that Mary Elizabeth Winstead can act, treating it as if she’s never acted in a film before. Sophomore director James Ponsoldt tries too hard, either being overtly pretentious or too subtle for his own good.
Burke’s script (based on her own experiences) isn’t bad, and in fact there’s quite a bit of truth here. Perhaps that’s what frustrates me about the picture, and in that respect the film does something right. Burke presents alcoholism as a problem (which indeed, it is,) and her script does show the not-so-glamorous aspects of it, and the ripple effects of that. Kate Hannah is a fully realized character, and outside of a few choice lines of dialogue, everything feels grounded. She’s complimented by some fine cinematography by Tobias Datum, who shoots the film muted. It works, and helps the story immensely.
So does Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance as Kate. She never gets outlandish when she’s playing drunk, which is too fine a line to cross. True, some have criticized her for being too bland in previous pictures, but she’s always shined (even in the highly overrated Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.) She flexes more of her acting chops here, and completely owns the film. While the Hollywood game often requires one to do the bigger budgeted pictures when you first start, Winstead’s hopefully in a place she can accept roles that will show what few of us have known for quite some time.
She’s backed up by a great supporting cast, starting with Aaron Paul as Charlie, Kate’s husband. He’s an anchor holding her down, yet Paul marries it with being the supportive husband Kate thinks she needs. Octavia Spencer, fresh off The Help, does an admirable job as Kate’s sponsor Jenny, while Nick Offerman overcomes the more awkward moments of his character to turn in a solid performance.
James Ponsoldt’s directing is still the film’s biggest enemy. Does he do a bad job? Tough to say, as it would depend on how one classifies bad. If getting just pointing and shooting things makes one a bad director, then no, he quite succeeds there. His style feels like an extension of his personality, which, again, is no fault, and actually a compliment to him. But does it feel right for this story? In this critic’s opinion, no. He plays things annoyingly subtle, trying desperately to be “cool”. Maybe he’d played things a bit more straight, the film would be less of a nuisance. Instead, it’s distracting and frustrating that he can do this, especially when he succeeds pretty well at getting strong performances from his actors.
Or perhaps I’m still bitter at the film for hitting close to home as they say. Typically when films do that, they’ve done something right, which Smashed does get things right. This is Winstead’s vehicle, and she steers it to perfection. Then again, if the style hadn’t thrown me off I could laud more praise at the movie, nor would I be as frustrated with James Ponsoldt as much as I am.