Movie review: Smashed 

***
click to enlarge Mary Elizabeth Winstead (left) and Octavia Spencer in 'Smashed.'
  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead (left) and Octavia Spencer in 'Smashed.'

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) live in a fashion that will be familiar to many. She's a first-grade teacher, he's sort of a music writer (his parents have money, which allows the "sort of.") After school, Kate comes home and usually finds Charlie and two or three of his buddies hanging out, playing video game and maintaining a light buzz. After a bit, Kate joins them for an evening of partying.

For Charlie, this is just the way he lives. Kate, however, comes to realize that matters are getting out of hand for her. After drinking at school, she abruptly vomits in front of her six-year-old students. After the obligatory "eews!," one kid asks the teacher if she's pregnant.

Kate, flummoxed by the situation and looking for a way to end the mortifying incident, says "yes" and the lie quickly spreads around school, reaching the very empathic principal (Megan Mullally) and the vice principal (Nick Offerman, Mullally's real-life husband), who saw Kate drinking and recognizes the scam. In a low-key, warm manner, he lets Kate know he's an AA member and offers to accompany her to a meeting if she wishes.

Imagine being Kate, dealing with your increasingly out of control drinking, the big fat lie at work, the prospect of entering the 12-step world, and the probable change in dynamics with your partner. Eew.

Smashed is a slight, but highly relatable feature by director James Ponsoldt, written by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke. There are numerous other films dealing with alcoholism and recovery with more depth and finesse, but the advantage of Smashed is the ordinary setting. There are crazy incidents - including a tantrum that culminates in Kate taking a pee on the floor of a convenience store - but the film generally avoids operatic melodrama in favor of everyday buzzes and Xbox ennui.

The movie belongs to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, best known for Scott Pilgrim vs. the Word. Winstead gets everything right in the lead role. Her credibility elevates the familiar story arc. Alas, Aaron Pau does not get the same opportunity to shine. The extraordinary co-star of Breaking Bad gives the role his all, but the screenplay is focused squarely on Kate, relegating Charlie to second-place status.

Offerman, the amazing Ron "Effing" Swanson on Parks and Recreation, sets a dignified tone for his supportive character, which makes it all the more shocking when he makes a truly cringe-inducing remark to Kate. As the principal, Mullaly offers borderline sitcommy comic relief, while the hugely-talented Octavia Spencer (The Help) is constricted by her limited role as an AA member/sponsor. Mary Kay Place turns up briefly as Kate's mother in a needless stereotype-reinforcing segment.

Smashed isn't helped by a jangly score that sounds like it was lifted from an Indie Film 101 class. And is it really necessary to play the same happy road trip music every time anybody goes for a drive, regardless of the mood of the scene?

As a study of a human being dealing with destructive behavior, Smashed doesn't dig deep. But as a showcase for Winstead, it works nicely. And who knows, it may change some lives.

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