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 – namely covering up a hangover-induced bout of throwing up in the middle of teaching class with a lie about pregnancy – 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 – especially Spencer and Megan Mullally – 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 April 23, 2015
Lord Huron doesn't quite trek to the stars like it said it might on its new album "Strange Trails," but the folk band is still going places. Its dreamy musical vistas have nabbed a big audience -- so much so that demand moved the band's return to The Pabst Theater on Saturday, April 25 over to the Riverside. Before then, I got a chance to chat with frontman Ben Schneider about "Strange Trails," the stories that come with it and going to space (at some point).
Published April 22, 2015
I've had some less than flattering things to say about found footage in recent years, calling it things like "the worst of today's low budget Hollywood filmmaking" and "a thing that shouldn't exist anymore." So let's all take a moment and marvel at the fact that in the new techno-horror flick "Unfriended," the found footage-esque visual gimmick not only works, but it's the best part of the movie. The result isn't much for scares, but it is scarily entertaining.
Published April 21, 2015
Welcome back to Unceremonious Overqualified Movie Dump Theatre. The most recent entry: "Child 44," which features an impressive roster of stars but was cut down to a mere 510 theaters just a few weeks before its release. It was a bad omen and unfortunately an accurate one as well, as the apparent lack of confidence from the studio equals a lack of quality on the screen.
Published April 20, 2015
The Maine is currently on the road right now, touring in support of its latest album "American Candy," released just last month on March 31. Its current tour lands at The Rave on Wednesday, April 22. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with guitarist Jared Monaco about the new album, as well as his appreciation for The Rave and ... NSYNC.
Published April 18, 2015
Before the fairy tale riff "Peter and the Starcatcher" starts its run at the Milwaukee Rep on Tuesday, April 21, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with director Blake Robison about this particular Peter Pan retelling, making actors fly and why revisionist fairy tales are currently all the rage.
Published April 17, 2015
The Wisconsin State Fair's Main Stage lineup this summer features some of the biggest names the celebration has wrangled up in recent note. And the biggest of the bunch - or at least certainly the most unusual - is tightrope artist extraordinaire Nik Wallenda. OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk one-on-one with the stuntman about preparing for another life-threatening performance and being in a highwire family dynasty that shows no sign of stopping.
Published April 17, 2015
The Riverside's distant past will become the present as the legendary theater will play host to two screenings of the beloved 1942 classic "Casablanca" Friday and Saturday night. And to complete the blast to the past vibe of the event, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Max Steiner's famous score alongside the movie.
Published April 15, 2015
Eugene Ionesco's 1950 play "The Bald Soprano" - the first the famed playwright ever wrote - is an absurdist classic. It's one of the most performed shows in France with a permanent repertory spot at Theatre de la Huchette since 1957 and a large number of interpretations. It's safe to say, however, that few to none of those interpretations featuring digital actors getting beamed in like "Star Trek" characters.
Published April 14, 2015
The Blue Man Group is famous for several things: funky instruments, those old Intel ads, Tobias Funke proclaiming that "I blue myself!" on "Arrested Development" and, of course, the whole being covered in blue paint thing. But one of the crucial elements of the Blue Man Group is that they don't talk. So imagine my surprise in getting to interview a Blue Man (at least the transcription would be easy).
Published April 14, 2015
Tomorrow night, after weeks of anticipation and online voting, the Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDIs) will name the winners at a ceremony at the Potawatomi Event Center. However, there's still 24 hours left to learn about these community-impacting individuals and organizations and vote for the Wells Fargo People's Choice Award before the polls close and the numbers are tallied up.