It's hard for me to comment on the reality and authenticity of "Smashed." I've never known a person afflicted with alcoholism, much less been an alcoholic myself. I can't speak to whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the personal ongoing battle with addiction.
I suppose you could say that about most movies; I've never been a MI6 British secret agent, but I'd be more than willing to tell you about the parts of "Skyfall" I find absurd (anything involving massive gila monsters).
The small indie movie, though, feels very real. In fact, very few films are as awkwardly, hilariously and painfully genuine as "Smashed." It's not a biographical film (though some of co-writer Susan Burke's personal experiences from getting sober in her early 20s helped enlighten the script), but critiquing it and calling it out on its issues seems unfair, like grading someone's life based on my personal assumptions.
While it's definitely fair to say that not all of "Smashed" goes down smoothly, the end result is an intimate, complicated film about an intimate, complicated topic, with a smashing lead performance to boot.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") provides said performance as Kate, a young elementary school teacher. When she's not at the school, Kate and her equally alcoholic husband Charlie ("Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul) can be found drinking heavily at the local bar, shakily biking back home and drinking pretty much anything they have there too. Joaquin Phoenix's character from "The Master" would be so proud.
As her awful experiences escalate â€“ namely covering up a hangover-induced bout of throwing up in the middle of teaching class with a lie about pregnancy â€“ Kate decides it's time to try getting sober. With the help of her awkward co-worker (Nick Offerman, endearingly known as Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation"), she begins going to AA meetings and gaining a sponsor (the underutilized Octavia Spencer).
This complicates matters with the still hard-partying Charlie and her estranged mother (Mary Kay Place), who became a wreck after her husband left after also straightening up in AA.
Based on the previews, one could easily make the assumption that "Smashed" is an indie romantic comedy about alcoholics, and early on, that'd be pretty much correct. Winstead and Paul drunkenly banter, have awful drunk sex and get into all sorts of shenanigans. Sometimes it's funny (Winstead samples crack), sometimes it's terrifying (she wakes up on a disgusting abandoned couch in the middle of nowhere) and sometimes it's both.
Writer/director James Ponsoldt creates a strange mix of humor and drama that is difficult to get a handle on at first. A part of the problem with alcoholism is that people often have fun being drunk and do funny, ridiculous things when they lose control. It's sometimes only afterward when the regret really kicks in. "Smashed" tries to capture this balance and succeeds, albeit stumblingly. The overly chipper soundtrack and jittery camerawork don't help.
When the film struggles to stay upright early on, it luckily has Winstead's great performance to lean on. Ponsoldt's camera is often in love with Winstead's expressive face and understandably so. When she's drunk (which is often in the first act), she's vivacious and fun without ever condescending or judging her character. Then when she's sober, the viewer can see the guilt and fear without getting beaten over the head with it.
Watch her first AA meeting talk. Winstead hits every awkward level of amusement, confusion, embarrassment and guilt just right. It's moments like those where the audience realizes they find the humanity in her character because Winstead finds the humanity in her character. Hopefully, the Academy finds her performance, as well (it's a small movie, so it may need some help).
As "Smashed" lets its characters and story evolve, the emotional balance and camerawork becomes more stable, and the performances, especially Winstead, only get better. The minor characters aren't the most developed, but the actors â€“ especially Spencer and Megan Mullally â€“ provide the color that the screenplay lacks. Paul's character also gets a very touching moment in the film's closing sequence.
Ponsoldt's movie isn't perfect, but an original indie film with relationships and characters based in emotional authenticity rather than hip quirk? Cheers to that.
Maybe I'm being too dense here, but when, is it EVER funny to smoke crack?
2 comments about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published May 5, 2016
After growing rumors over the past few days - and general speculation over the last decade - IKEA officially announced its first Wisconsin location, moving into Oak Creek with an estimated opening in summer 2018.
Published May 4, 2016
Happy Star Wars Day, and indeed, May the Fourth be with you. While you're keeping your eyes open for any new "Star Wars" movie news, here are some ways you can celebrate the special day (surprisingly, none of them involve screening the prequels).
Published May 2, 2016
For years, rumors of an IKEA coming to Wisconsin have just been a fact of Cream City life. According to a BizTimes report, however, those rumors might actually - finally - be turning into reality with an Oak Creek location.
Published April 27, 2016
The Milwaukee Film Festival may still be months away, but that doesn't mean awesome things aren't happening at Milwaukee Film. Take, for instance, yesterday, when news broke that the organization was chosen to receive a $10,000 grant from AMPAS.
Published April 25, 2016
We're still all broken up about the sudden, shocking death of Prince. Thankfully, several Milwaukee venues are offering opportunities to continue the Prince mourning process this week and pay tribute to his artistic genius in both music and movies.
Published April 24, 2016
Mere hours after the news broke about Prince's shocking, sudden death, I chatted with Frightened Rabbit drummer Grant Hutchison about our favorite Prince memories and music moments, as well as the making of the Scottish indie rock band's new album.
Published April 22, 2016
The weather is getting nicer. Baseball has begun. Yep, summer is here, and you know what that means: Time to head indoors to a dark theater to watch movies! Here's what to expect from this year's summer slate.
Published April 21, 2016
David Bowie. Merle Haggard. George Martin. Phife. Glenn Frey - 2016 has been exceptionally cruel and brutal in taking away some of our most universally beloved musicians and cultural icons. This morning, it unfortunately added to its list: Prince.
Published April 20, 2016
Gary Tanin has a special friendship with David Bowie's longtime producer Tony Visconti, one started on a CompuServe chat room back in 1993. Two decades later, their friendship has endured - and led to Tanin producing the debut record for singer-songwriter Jack Spann.
Published April 19, 2016
It's coming up on almost a year since WTMJ-TV anchor Mike Jacobs retired, and a replacement has still yet to be named. There are Internet rumors and rumblings, however, that the spot may soon be officially filled - and by a familiar face. And now we know.