The Wasted Potential of 'Smashed'

Despite a strong central performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the Sundance favorite can't escape its message-movie feel

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Kate and Charlie, an attractive young married couple, shoot pool together. And drink. They sing karaoke. And drink. They ride bikes through their Los Angeles neighborhood at dusk. And drink. They make love, or at least try to: Frequently they've drunk too much.

You may notice a common thread here. Lest you miss it, Smashed—the indie drama of which Kate and Charlie are the protagonists—opens one morning with Kate having wet the bed. Over breakfast, she asks Charlie, "Why is it that coffee tastes so much better when you make it?" He replies, "Because I make it with rum. And I also make it with bacon."

No, Smashed is not a film about the perils of saturated fats. It is, as its title and very nearly its every scene make clear, a film about the perils of alcoholism. And despite its many virtues, the Sundance award-winning second feature by writer-director James Ponsoldt never lets you forget it.

The first 20 minutes or so of the movie follow Kate, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as she hits bottom, bounces, and hits it again: vomiting in front of the grammar-school class she teaches and pretending it's because she's pregnant; experimenting with crack and waking up in an abandoned lot downtown; peeing on the floor of a late-night convenience store. On the advice of a colleague at school, she goes to AA and sobers up. Charlie, however, played by Aaron Paul, does not—which will come as little surprise to viewers familiar with the actor's work as Jesse on Breaking Bad—and their abruptly unbalanced marriage begins to teeter.

There's a good deal to like here. Ponsoldt's film (co-written with Susan Burke, who also has a small role) has an appealing look and feel, with gossamer cinematography by Tobias Datum and an easygoing soundtrack by Andy Cabic (of the band Vetiver) and Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats). Paul is good, if perhaps a bit typecast, as amiable layabout Charlie, and nice supporting turns are offered by Octavia Spencer and off-screen husband-and-wife duo Nick Offerman (almost unrecognizable from Parks and Recreation) and Megan Mullally. As for Winstead, her performance as Kate represents a genuine breakthrough following her B-list roles in such movies as Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Thing, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. During the movie's quieter moments in particular, she displays an engaging intelligence and gentle luminosity.

Alas, Smashed has altogether too few such moments. With a handful of exceptions—a brief visit to an abandoned Santa's Village in the country, for instance—this is a film in which nearly every scene creaks under the weight of its narrative purpose: here's where Kate Visits Her Estranged, Alcoholic Mother; here's where Charlie Drunkenly Reveals A Secret; here's Kate's Inevitable Relapse. The central theme of the movie—that it is all but impossible to sustain a marriage in which one party opts to get sober and the other does not—is needlessly bolstered by not one but two subsidiary storylines making the identical point. And despite her otherwise noteworthy performance, Winstead overshoots the mark when emotions run high, offering an occasionally clumsy pantomime of extreme drunkenness. (In these instances the script bears at least some of the blame: Rare indeed is the actress who can pull off a line such as "I don't want to sleep. I want to fuck.")

The result is a film of unrealized potential, an intriguing character study that too often feels as self-consciously over-structured as the 12-step program it portrays. But even as it disappoints, Smashed holds open the promise of better things yet to come—from director Ponsoldt and (especially) from his star, Winstead.