Saturday, May 18, 2013
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner
Running Time: 81 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There are certain actors and actresses you're just a fan of. It would probably be easier to deny it and pretend I go into every movie with complete objectivity, but the fact is that I'm much more likely to watch and appreciate a film starring performers I like and have followed throughout their careers. I want them to make smart choices that confirm my opinions of their talent, and if they don't, it's disappointing. Three of them co-star in James Ponsoldt's Smashed, a film about alcoholism that's really about a descent into sobriety. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul and Nick Offerman appearing together in a single film reading from a phone book probably would have been enough for me, but here's Winstead giving an award caliber central performance as an alcoholic, Paul as her immature, unsupportive husband and Offerman proving he can inhabit a character that's about as far removed from Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson as possible. On top of that, the film itself is nearly perfect in a straightforward, no-nonsense way that may not be immediately apparent. It plays honestly, but without judgement.
Winstead plays Kate Hannah, a schoolteacher who also happens to be an alcoholic. We see in early scenes that, as the former, she's amazingly kind and patient with the kids and pretty much every parent's dream of who they'd trust with their children. Until, hungover from another night of partying, she vomits all over the classroom floor. The kids ask her if she's pregnant and, panicking, she to lies them and a supportive Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally). It's likely Kate's been an alcoholic for a while but is just now starting to come around and realize it. She's not there yet, but getting close. Hardly helping is her equally hard partying husband, Charlie (Paul) whose complete obliviousness to their situation and terminal complacency are the only qualities making him seem like he doesn't have as much of a problem as she does. Kate's only real support comes from the soft-spoken vice principal Dave Davies (Offerman), a recovering addict not only willing to cover up her lie because he has a big crush, but also willing to take her with him to AA meetings where she meets her sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer). On the road to recovery, Kate discovers sobriety is slowly tearing her marriage apart, as a still drinking Charlie feels left behind and a slew of other problems start to surface.
It seems to be a commonly held belief about young people that their drinking and drug use will never escalate to alcoholism or addiction, and it carries over into movies where the middle-aged tend to be the most serious substance abusers. It's almost as if young adults are expected to be doing it, and, as a result, should be able to handle it just fine. At the beginning of this film you'd almost be forgiven into thinking so, until a moment comes that's frightening in how well Winstead sells it. Waking up on the street with no idea where she is or how she got there, it's the first time Kate seems legitimately scared and mortified of what she's capable of when drinking. During a memorable sequence scored to Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight," we see Kate spend the night smoking crack with a hooker, and it's after that she realizes it's the final straw. But really it's just the beginning. Short-term, her decision to embrace sobriety surprisingly causes more problems than it solves in her marriage and life, while bringing dormant ones to the surface, such as an already strained relationship with her mother (Mary Kay Place).
There were already strong hints of Winstead promise in 2011's The Thing prequel and now seeing this it'll be easier to understand why I suspected that role in Scott Pilgrim was way beneath her. This confirms it. It's almost become a long-running joke that playing an alcoholic is every actor's dream since it invariably leads to awards recognition of some sort, but there's a reason for that. It's difficult to do believably. She doesn't squander the opportunity, knowing that drunk people often behave like delusional sober people, completely ignorant to everything going on around them. And it's the mode she's in for the entire first half of the film, which is no small feat. But it's when the drinking stops that her performance really kicks into high gear, as Kate's eaten with guilt over her sobriety driving a wedge through her marriage. She also has to ward off the advances of confidant and co-worker, Dave, though using the term "advances" is probably stretching it given his struggles talking to women. Offerman leaves all traces of the manly, breakfast obsessed Ron Swanson behind in a really subdued, low-key dramatic performance that still doesn't completely abandon the dry sense of humor he's known for. It proves, unsurprisingly, that he's capable of other things.
Aaron Paul plays Charlie as a good guy, but also one stuck in a complacent holding pattern. In this way, he resembles Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad's early seasons (right down to the substance abuse and playing video games on the couch) to the point that he'll probably be accused of just playing a variation on his TV character. But this speaks more to our familiarity with Paul than the actual performance, which is surprising in how he cedes so much of the spotlight to his co-star. Now that Kate's sober, there may no longer be a place for him in her life and they'll have to take stock as to whether they ever had anything that went beyond drinking and partying. We also wonder if she can move past how unforgivably unsupportive he's been in her recovery. But much like Flight, the other 2012 film dealing with alcoholism, Kate won't really be clean until she admits she isn't and takes responsibility for her lies.
Watching Smashed, I couldn't help but wonder how badly it would have turned out if a major studio had released it, interfering to make it more exciting or dumbing it down so a depressing topic like alcoholism could be more cheery and accessible. Thankfully, we'll never see that version and I'm given the opportunity to see three of my favorites given free reign to just tear into this meaningful material with everything they've got. It also marks the first time I've seen a movie character pulled over for driving drunk...on a bicycle. First-time director Ponsoldt makes it happen but it's easy believe the hard part was over once this cast was set in place. It wasn't until the end that I realized Paul and Offerman don't share a single scene together. And that feels strangely like the right call. For the story's purposes, there's no need, so they don't. But the film ultimately belongs to Winstead, revealing dimensions to her abilities even her biggest fans couldn't have anticipated. And that she does it opposite two of TV's best, only makes the accomplishment seem that much greater.