Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Written by: James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 85 minutes
It’s Kate and Charlie, the funniest, sweetest couple of regulars kicking back at the local music club. But a few hours later: It’s Kate and Charlie, the screwed-up drunks who can barely walk under their own power. In the late afternoon: Look, how cool they are, riding their bicycles around their northeast L.A. ‘hood. But later on that night: Look, what assholes they are, weaving all over the road, forcing cars to slow to a crawl behind them. And they don’t even notice.
When thirtysomething Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself sneaking a few nips from a flask before she walks into her class of first-graders; when she wakes up in the pre-dawn light near a homeless encampment; when she can’t remember how her bike ended up in a ditch alongside the L.A. River … Kate starts to reassess her actions. But her husband, partner and soul mate, good time Charlie (Aaron Paul), thinks that all she needs to do is slow down a bit. He suggests that they turn into those “wine with dinner” people.
The trajectory that Smashed explores isn’t all that unusual; a recovering alcoholic recognizes a similar illness in a stranger and reaches out, suggesting an initial meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous. In this instance, Kate’s elementary school vice principal, Nick Offerman’s Dave Davies, admits to his nine years of sobriety and invites her to a meeting.
In the early stages, the filmmakers (director/co-writer James Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke) get it right, giving us marvelous peeks into Kate-and-Charlie Land. They’re affectionate, witty people who are nuts about each other. And fun? They resemble Kate’s class of first-graders, giggling, playing, inventing wondrous new ways to enjoy every minute of their woozy waking hours. But that’s the problem: rather than accepting adult responsibilities, the couple ducks under a boozy blanket of avoidance. Even their house is a gift from Charlie’s rich mommy and daddy.
Ponsoldt and Burke also treat Kate’s tentative steps toward recovery with a light sensitivity, Kate giggling nervously as she announces to a room full of strangers for the very first time, “I’m an alcoholic.” Her scenes with Offerman’s offbeat Dave are some of the best in the film … though she’s the foundering alcoholic, their dynamic reverses because, ultimately, she’s the much stronger individual.
Smashed gives us wonderful performances as well, both from Winstead, as the self-professed “adorable drunk” who finally grows up, and from Aaron Paul, marinating his character in a touchingly sad combination of punch drunk love and denial. Additionally, Offerman adds just the right twist of the wackadoo. But as written, Megan Mullally’s school principal is off the rails, her inappropriate actions pulling us out of the story.
However, in the later acts, the movie unfortunately slumps into a pro-AA tract, an us versus them mentality soaked in righteous rigor. Octavia Spencer as Kate’s sponsor is just a little too perfect, a little too self-assured with her own recovery. (It’s as if she traded in booze for Quaaludes.) And unfortunately, though Winstead and Paul are superb, they can’t overcome the film’s third-act lethargic pacing. We care for these people and want them to fight for and with each other with true fire … but instead, the dialogue sinks into a repetitive, accusatory bicker.
Under the designation of the wine glass half-full: Smashed is only Ponsoldt’s second foray into feature directing. Hopefully, the third time will be the charm.
Rating on a scale of 5 Days of Wine and Roses: 3