Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner
An unconvincing portrait of downward-spiral alcoholism anchored by a noisy, look-at-me lead turn, “Smashed” trades on surface-level melodrama before it finally fumbles away any credibility with fundamentally false notions of what co-dependence and addiction look like. The recipient of almost universally positive notices following its Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year, director James Ponsoldt’s sophomore feature is a sterling example of herd-mentality hype. Every film “Smashed” variously recalls — from major-chord alcoholic tales like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” to “Sherrybaby,” splintering-marriage romance “Blue Valentine” and even Joshua Leonard’s “The Lie” — is a deeper, more substantive work.
Young, married Los Angelenos Kate and Charlie Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul) exist in a pleasant haze of near-perpetual intoxication. She’s a first-grade teacher, he’s a freelance music writer set up to coast financially courtesy of a sizable endowment from an unseen family. After Kate vomits in her classroom in front of her kids, she goes along in the affirmative with one of their queries, and lets folks believe she is pregnant. Principal Patricia Barnes (Megan Mullally) is thrilled. Kate later confides her secret to co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), who shares that he is in fact a recovering alcoholic. Fed up with the cyclical partying and hangovers, Kate takes steps toward improving her health, and starts attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where she secures a sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer). Charlie isn’t ready to quit his partying ways, however, leading to more friction in their relationship.
The script for “Smashed,” co-written by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, is a hodge-podge of clichés that cycles unpersuasively through montages of self-betterment in order to make more time for “outrageous” acting out and gabby reflection. Its many positive reviews talk up the modesty of “Smashed,” and its unsensationalized, to-scale drama. But there is nothing particularly bright or insightful here. In fact, beat for beat, “Smashed” feels phony. Its story is wildly contrived; after supposedly being sober for months, Kate still hasn’t seemed to consider how to mask the lie of her pregnancy, until after co-workers throw a baby shower and her students start asking her about weight gain, leading to a terribly imagined conversation about abortion and miscarriage. And the movie’s idea of payoff is, when Kate and Charlie go to visit the former’s mother, Rochelle (Mary Kay Place), showing the frozen meal of choice from her less-than-ideal childhood which Kate previously held forth on in a drunken monologue.
Worse still, “Smashed” lacks emotional and psychological credibility with respect to how addicts co-exist and, more importantly, unravel and lash out when one gets sober and “leaves behind” the other. Damningly, it also misrepresents a character nine years sober, trading his dignity for a cheap and entirely unearned laugh. “Smashed” is not a movie that knows or understands the human condition, in states either altered, otherwise damaged or normal.
The film’s insistently gritty technical package further feeds this self-satisfied sense of mock-faithful portraiture. Cinematographer Tobias Datum trades in handheld work just because it seems “real.” Ponsoldt, though, doesn’t even completely trust this tack, so he makes sure to have Kate hoist a beer when she belts out karaoke tune; it’s as if he believes that if alcohol isn’t in the frame, a viewer might forget that she’s stricken with addiction.
Then there are the movie’s performances. Emmy winner Paul (“Breaking Bad”) is a fine young actor, but given precious little with which to work here. Similarly, Winstead fails to truly access Kate’s dark places or shame, resorting to atonal yelling and volume modulation as dramatic substitutes. “Smashed” is loud, and certainly sure of itself, but it’s a whole lot of noise signifying nothing much.
Written by: Brent Simon