Sundance Review: Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Aaron Paul Hit the Bottle, And It Hits Back, In Strong, Stirring ‘Smashed’

Sundance Review: Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Aaron Paul Hit the Bottle, And It Hits Back, In Strong, Stirring 'Smashed'
Sundance Review: Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Aaron Paul Hit the Bottle, And It Hits Back, Strong, Stirring 'Smashed'

There is a sub-canon of films about alcohol as deep and as dark as a barrel of bourbon, from “Lost Weekend” to “Days of Wine and Roses” to “Trees Lounge.” “Smashed,” premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, casts Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Charlie and Kate, a married couple in L.A. whose love is strong, full and, more to the point, well-saturated. Charlie and Kate like to drink, and it shows; Kate’s mortified to have a hung-over vomiting fit while teaching, apologizing to her 1st graders and answering, falsely, yes when her kids ask if she’s pregnant. When Kate is busted by her vice-Principal Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman, in a performance that in a just world would be an Oscar contender), she confesses her lies and he simply notes “That’s … not good.”

It turns out that Mr. Davies is 9 years sober, though, and guides Kate to her first AA meeting. She explains: “Things have gone from ’embarrassing’ to ‘scary.’ ” Kate works the steps — and Charlie, with his work-from-home magazine writer gig and wealthy parents, doesn’t. It’s not so much a source of tension but, instead, exposing all the problems and co-dependencies their relationship is based on. Kate gets a sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer) even while realizing that now that she’s sober, she has to actually deal with everything that she drowned in alcohol. …

Directed by James Ponsoldt, who also co-wrote alongside Susan Burke, knows that, by and large, he can simply let Paul and Winstead run; they’re both talented actors, and they’re both clearly relishing the chance to play something different. Winstead’s bright, light charm has helped her in a run of films, but here she gets to crack it open to show dark rot underneath. Paul may be best known as “Breaking Bad” co-star Jesse Pinkman, but while Charlie also likes his vices a bit too much, his performance — loving, gentle, lightly hammered — is in a very different key than his work there. As mentioned above, Offerman is excellent — sober but not perfect, a man with a good heart and a horrible shirt wardrobe — and Spencer is also good. (Some wag at Sundance tweeted that “Smashed,” like “The Help,” continues Spencer’s acting run of helping White people. That person should be ashamed; there’s nothing in the script or the context to link Jenny’s life and circumstances to the color of her skin, and suggesting the film or Spencer stoop to that kind of lazy work is insulting.)

But even past the performances, there’s a lot of technique to admire here as well. The editing is particularly adept — including a smashed smash-cut to black as a drunken Kate rages — and editor Suzanne Spangler works remarkably well with her director. Production designer Linda Sena also does ace work — from the charming-but-grout-clogged retro-pink bathroom tile in Charlie and Kate’s home to the dingy bars and tastefully lame AA meetings Kate goes to. The script has a sense of humor, but also a sense of honor — Kate’s journey to sobriety is neither falsely friction-free not grimly and grittily horrible, and the careful balancing act of Kate’s journey makes us feel for her. (And for ourselves; I know more than a few journalists who mentioned that, during or after the screening at Sundance, they carried out a careful and thoughtful — indeed, one could say sober — examination of their own cocktail habits.)

It’d be easy to knock “Smashed” as a showy acting exercise, or a too-easy look at sobriety and choice. But all of the pain and problem-solving here feel human and natural, never forced or contrived. The sober are not heroes; the drunk, not all demons. Ponsoldt, Paul and Winstead make a remarkably effective team for this film’s points and purposes, and “Smashed” burns long after it goes down smoothly. [A]

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