“Smashed” chronicles the hard fall of a young couple discovering that the social lubricant that seems to smooth out their lives is quickly gumming up their works. “Smashed” hits many expected signposts in addiction/recovery narratives, but the honest performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul elevate the drama beyond typical Alcoholics Anonymous story arcs.
Kate Hannah (Winstead) teaches first graders near the Echo Park home in Los Angeles that she shares with husband Charlie (Paul), a music journalist who works from home. Kate and Charlie are sweet, charming people, but they often take their first drinks before 8 a.m., and they do not fall asleep — they pass out. One morning, hung over as usual, Kate is her usual bubbly self in front of her students when she unexpectedly throws up in class. Kate makes up a story to explain her illness, the kind of bad, spur-of-the-moment lie that cannot be easily walked back.
A few more bad moves later, Kate is being shepherded through Alcoholics Anonymous by her vice principal, Dave Davies (Nick Offerman of “Parks and Recreation”), and finds a strong and sympathetic sponsor in Jenny (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer of “The Help”). Charlie, in contrast, has no real responsibilities so never feels any urgency to seek help. Kate makes progress, but the lies she told to both her class and her principal (former Oklahoma City resident Megan Mullally) are catching up and multiplying.
Paul has a proven track record in portraying substance abuse from his Emmy-winning role on “Breaking Bad,” but Winstead bears most of the burden in making these people feel real. When on the wagon, Winstead's Kate is a model of clarity who is visibly horrified by who she is in her drinking life. The actress takes on this polarity as if she is playing two radically different people with the same name, but as Kate comes to understand, alcohol truly has that effect on her.
Writer-director James Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke put Kate and Charlie through the paces of a gender-flipped version of “Days of Wine and Roses,” creating a stark and often cringe-worthy look at the toll of acute alcoholism. “Smashed” is not saying anything new about booze and its hold on addicts, but Winstead and Paul make viewers feel the impact as their characters hit bottom.
— George Lang
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally.
(Alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use)