Editor’s note: With Smashed hitting limited release this week, please delicately sip (or chug down, your preference) our Sundance review of the film, first published on January 24, 2012.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to lead a charmed life – she has a loving husband, friends, and a job teaching first grade that she is passionate about. But the one thing that is always present in Kate’s life is alcohol. She and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), spend every night getting (wait for it) smashed on beer, liquor, really just whatever alcohol is available. The drinking (while excessive) appears to be just a harmless part of their lifestyle, but when Kate shows up hungover to work (and throws up in front of her class), one of her students asks if she is pregnant and Kate confirms the lie, figuring it is a better excuse than the truth.
Unfortunately the news makes it to the school’s principal, Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) and scared of what will happen if she tells the truth, Kate continues to pretend the news is true. However, the school’s vice principal, Dave (Nick Offerman, in a very un-Ron Swanson like role), recognizes what is really going on with Kate, since he himself is a recovering alcoholic. Kate assures him she is fine and takes her personal day to, well, to go to a bar and get drunk. As she leaves the bar, she takes pity on a girl in need of a ride and on their way home (thanks to her inebriated state) Kate agrees to smoke some crack with her. Having never done the drug before, once high, Kate ends up hanging out with some homeless people and finds herself passed out on a discarded couch the next morning. The incident scares Kate and pushes her to take Dave up on his offer to be her “wingman” at an AA meeting.
Kate doesn’t think she has a problem, but the fact that she keeps a flask in her car and will take a pull from a leftover beer in the morning suggests otherwise. Kate grew up around alcohol and to her, drinking a lot is normal, but as she starts to really look at her situation she begins to realize that she may in fact be (weird as it is to say) an alcoholic. Situations that had been funny when she was younger are now becoming scary, both for Kate and for the audience.
While Kate does take to the program and makes it to a month sober, Charlie’s continued drinking and the constant presence of alcohol in their house threatens both Kate’s sobriety and her marriage. The problem is that, while Kate is changing, Charlie is not, and Smashed finds its emotion and heart in Kate’s realization that relationship may have only worked because they were both constantly drunk together.
Smashed starts out fairly light-hearted, with Charlie just happy Kate would come home from all night benders rather than getting upset, but as Kate gets sober and her real issues start to come to light (much like her drinking), things go from fun to serious. The most upsetting thing that is consistently and readily apparent is that Charlie truly is in love with Kate, but love may not be enough as Kate is struggling with real problems and needs real help.
Winstead and Paul shine on screen together, making the moments when their relationship starts to get off-track all the more heartbreaking. Alcoholism is an upsetting disease that never fades away quietly (or quickly), and neither director James Ponsoldt or Winstead shy away from portraying Kate’s struggle in a real way that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, while still leaving you feeling hopeful.
The Upside: Winstead turns in a stunningly honest performance of what it means to struggle with this disease that keeps you engaged and caring about Kate (even in her darkest moments) from beginning to end. Paul keeps pace with Winstead and proves that he is definitely a talent to watch, both on the small (Breaking Bad) and big screen.
The Downside: The literal “smash” cut towards the end of the film was the only part that felt like a bit of a cheat, but the scene with Winstead and Paul that followed it almost made the jump ahead in time worth it.
On the Side: An inappropriate admission from Dave to Kate (you’ll know it when you see it!) is not only brilliantly played by Offerman, but it offers some solid advice for men about how to (or in this case, not to) talk to women. Learn it.