Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman
Alcoholism and bleakness are concepts that tend to go hand-in-hand, and perhaps rightly so. It would be difficult to justify a light-hearted approach to such a weighty problem. The typical formula when it comes to film depictions of the theme goes something like this: physical abuse accompanied by deep depression; solitary bar skulking carried out over a sound track of Morrisey; hopeless despair followed by hopeless despair. Ironically a viewer may even find themselves, after having watched such a film, searching for the bottle, the misery is so intense.
Within this repertoire of dipsomania on film, gleeful scenes of drunken cycling, martial accordance, and general merriment are few and far between. James Ponsoldt’s latest film, Smashed, moves away from the hopeless despair, adopting instead a new and quirky approach to an age-old and stern matter. Smashed tells the story of Kate and Charlie Hannah (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul), a young couple in the grips of alcoholism. The film pivots around Winstead’s attempts to overcome her addiction as she finds aid and guidance in the form of fellow primary school teacher Dave Davis (Nick Offerman) and the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he introduces her to. While Paul continues on his path of inert intoxication, writing the occasional music review now and then, we witness Winstead as she struggles to consolidate her sober life and her married one.
The succeeding story of how Winstead copes in her new life of sobriety, is most prominently striking in its freshness; it is not all doom and gloom. This is best seen in Winstead herself, whose kooky manner lends a feeling of charm to an inherently charmless topic. Witty jokes and puns, along with quirky situations and comically awkward conversations are scattered throughout. Yet this is by no manner of speaking a glib treatment of the issue at hand. Winstead’s public urination in a local convince store and frenzied breakdown moves away from the charmingly quirky and towards the simply harrowing. There are sides of the film which display the more attractive side of alcohol, but you would be hard pressed to come away from watching it with any desire to embark on such a life.
There is perhaps a strange dichotomy within the movie; the cute, quirky and endearing of Winstead and her relationship with Offerman, meets a subject matter that is the antithesis of all the above in scenes of domestic discord and familial unease. This dichotomy does not necessarily detract from the film, but may leave Winstead’s character somewhat underdeveloped.
You could easily argue that as weighty an issue as alcohol should not be diluted no matter how artistically credential that dilution may be. However, rawness does not necessarily have to equal misery. Where Smashed arguably becomes more honest than its vodka-swilling counterparts is in its depiction of the enjoyable side of alcoholism.
In a Nutshell: Smashed is certainly far from any advertisement of alcoholism. It is a different portrayal of a topic that has been depicted repeatedly; for this and for its script, cinematography and directing a viewing is strongly recommended.