From "The Lost Weekend" to "Leaving Las Vegas," portraits of alcoholics in the movies have tended to be a male-dominated affair, but there's an entire subgenre of inebriated female characters equally worthy of attention. Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence," Joan Allen in "The Upside of Anger," Tilda Swinton in "Julia" and Charlize Theron in "Young Adult" have now been joined by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed," opening this week.
These movies stand out from their male equivalents because their physicality is constantly at odds with expectations. The actors must fight against the capacity for the camera to echo society's expectations of a pristine, festishized presence. Perpetually drunk and angry, their struggles represent a deconstruction of that nasty tendency often identified in scholarly circles as "the male gaze": Forced to look pretty and behave, instead they desperately lash out, fall to pieces, and through their de-glamorized situations issue cries for help.
In the case of "Smashed," this display transcends the overall movie. Director James Ponsoldt ("Off the Black") provides sturdy direction but can't entirely overcome the meandering nature of the screenplay (co-written by actress Susan Burke, whose history with alcoholism partly inspired the story). Winstead's performance, however, overwhelms and overcomes the fragmented story. As the continuously sloshed Kate, she's stuck in a downward spiral from the very first scene. Each morning begins with a hangover, which at one point causes her to vomit in front of the first-grade class she teacher and then inadvertently blame the cause on a non-existent pregnancy. The lie attracts the sympathies of the subdued vice principal (Nick Offerman), to whom Kate confesses her mistake; a recovering alcoholic himself, he invites her to an AA meeting, where a tentative solution finally arrives.
Having reach this turning point, "Smashed" falls into the trappings of many addiction stories where the cycle of falling in and out of sobriety defines the storytelling in a dispiritingly transparent manner. Facing indifference from her husband (Aaron Paul, in a role so similar to his drug-addled character on "Breaking Bad" that he could have simply drifted from one set to another), also a drunk but comfortably so, she turns to her newfound AA pals for support that they eagerly provide. That one-note relationship is only briefly complicated when the possibility of a marital infidelity enters into the picture, but the strangely amusing development feels tacked on to a movie devoid of any clear direction outside of Kate's ongoing plight.
But what a plight: It's one thing for an actor to convey drunkenness by merely stumbling around the set and slurring words. Winstead does more than that. Her eyes are always darting forward, not quite there, searching for clarity about the world that constantly eludes her. The character is a mess of arms and legs jutting forward, sometimes enraged, elsewhere grasping for the correct response to each barrier placed in front of her. She's not entirely pitiable -- the problem she faces derives from her own complexes even if her husband never steps up to support her -- but the performance makes Kate so human that she manages overcome the boundaries of the plot. Like the onscreen alcoholics before her, she makes the case that this particular disease exists within the nuances of behavior.
In tune with Rowlands' turn in "A Woman Under the Influence," Winstead's onscreen presence forms an implicit critique of movie stardom, which buries the realities of life in makeup and bright lights. That process enables viewers to get drunk on the power of cinematic fantasy, but Winstead's performance provides a trenchant wakeup call even when the movie can't keep pace.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The movie premiered to generally strong reactions at Sundance in January and will be released in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics this Friday in several cities. While interest in Paul from "Breaking Bad" and some acclaim for Winstead's performance may help it perform decently during its initial week of release, it may have a tough time staying visible as awards season begins in earnest.