SMASHED – The Review

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Seems like yesterday (actually a few weeks ago) that we were talking about the depiction of alcohol dependency in movies with the release of the excellent FLIGHT. This weekend the much lower-budgeted independent film SMASHED opens in a few select screens (far fewer than the Zemeckis flick). I hope movie goers don’t pass this one up thinking that they’ve covered this territory too recently. This is a study of a young couple in their 20’s and how the desire to end an addiction affects the relationship. There’s no nail-biting airliner crash landing at the heart of this one, but the journey of the young woman at the center of SMASHED has more than its share of emotion and drama.

That aforementioned young woman is Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s happily married to Charlie (Aaron Paul). They share a modest LA home and spend their evenings at several local watering holes boozing the night away. Charlie works out of their home while Kate barely makes it to her job while dealing with the after-effects of the previous nights. One day the hangover catches up to her at work which compels her to lie to her gullible boss (Megan Mullally). Everyone believes the fib except Kate’s co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), who suspects her secret. He invites her to an AA meeting. She brushes him off until two more frightening black-outs convince her to join Dave’s group. Kate befriends a recovering caterer named Jenny (Octavia Spencer), who agrees to be her sponsor. Unfortunately Charlie chafes at his wife’s news. He just doesn’t think that there’s a problem. A trip to make amends with Kate’s estranged mother (Mary Kay Place) doesn’t go as hoped. But Kate struggles to change her ways. Can she get clean before the truth comes out at work? And will her quest for sobriety drive a wedge between Kate and Charlie?

This an intimate,smaller-scaled version of a story Hollywood has told previously with THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN. Without a big budget it needs strong performances to draw us in. Luckily Winstead is more than up to the task. Her powerful work is the anchor of the story. She’s made a name for herself in the past few years with mostly genre roles (THE THING, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER), but this film establishes her as a major dramatic actress. This echoes Charlize Theron in MONSTER. We’ve seen her before, but had no idea of her range. Kate’s behavior disturbs us (she keeps a cold beer bottle within reach of the shower) and is often repellant (an early morning liquor run turns grim quickly). But we see how good she is at her job and how pleasant she is with her co-workers. Immediately we’re rooting for her. Her decision to get help doesn’t send her to happiness. One of the film’s most harrowing moments is when she relapses. Kate’s confrontation with Charlie is raw and very scary. Winstead delivers a brave, searing performance that takes Kate to dark, ugly depths. If there’s any justice Mary Elizabeth Winstead will be one of the five actresses vieing to take home Oscar. I look forward to hopefully even more stellar work from her.

Winstead is joined by a superb supporting cast that’s mostly known for their superb work on television. Paul has taken home several awards for the acclaimed “Breaking Bad” and will get some deserved recognition as the hard-partying Charlie. He truly adores Kate and fears that she will change radically once she’s sober. The aforementioned relapse scene shocks him to the core but doesn’t spur him into dealing with his own abuses. Although he can be cruel , he still elicits much sympathy by the film’s end. Offerman is doing a lovable buttoned-up, nerdy variation on his Ron Swanson character on the sublime “Parks and Recreations”. A scene expressing his feelings for Kate is both hilarious and unbelievably awkward (truly cringe-worthy). Mullally infuses Barnes with more of the daffyness of her sitcom work, which makes her resolution with Kate even more heart-breaking. It’s great see Place back on the big screen once more. She’s unafraid to show why Kate has broken off contact with this toxic parent. This film is Spencer’s first work since picking up the Oscar this year for THE HELP. Jenny is much quieter than the boisterous Minny. Her testimony at the meeting and her advise for Kate while working in the kitchen are memorable. Like her co-stars, she works very well with Winstead.

Relative newcomer director James Ponsoldt hasn’t gotten great performances from all the actors here. He never lets the camera get in the way of this intimate character study. His nighttime LA is fully of wavering streetlights and headlights that simulate intoxication. The sunlight sears into the hungover revelers almost causing them to react like classic vampires (none of that sparkly stuff!). Unlike FLIGHT, Kate knows she has a problem fairly early on. The drama is seeing her try to get past all the many obstacles life tosses in her way to recovery. SMASHED is quite a wonderful drama that’s not to be missed. Ponsoldt and his troupe ( especially the astounding Ms. Winstead) have uncorked one of the year’s most powerful (almost intoxicating) films.

4.5 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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