Booze has played a huge part in so many huge performances. Lest we forget, before he went completely nuts, Nic Cage won an Oscar for playing a drunk in Leaving Las Vegas. Ray Milland won his Oscar for playing a drunk in The Lost Weekend. And those guys were acting. Plenty of actors, including Martin Sheen and Robert Shaw, were drunk for some of their most important sequences in Apocalypse Now and Jaws, respectively. And, hell, there’s a reason we’re all so besotted with Mad Men, right?
Alcohol and movies go hand in hand, writes the man with the big glass of cabernet, and there’s no shortage of films about people with drinking problems. The problem with movies about big-time drinkers is that since they’re all essentially about the same thing, they have to be really good to stand out. Beer goggles might help you at last call, but they can’t objectively improve a movie.
James Ponsoldt’s new film, Smashed, has some nice moments and features a great performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. It’s a small film, despite having some heavy hitters in it, including Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. Yes, it’s about drinking, specifically about what happens to a woman who tries to get sober and how that decision affects her relationship with her work, her mother and her husband. It’s not a new idea, and it isn’t particularly unique, but it’s a movie that will, undoubtedly, mean a great deal to someone.
Winstead plays Kate Hannah, a 20-something teacher who, when we first meet her, has just wet the bed that she shares with her husband, Charlie (Paul, looking a lot like Ben Foster), who scrapes by as a writer. Despite being a drunk, Kate’s good at her job. The kids love her, and she’s exactly the kind of teacher you wish your child had had in kindergarten—had you not known she was drinking in the parking lot before school. She’s funny, engaged and active, but she’s also a young, hip married lady, and she likes to party. A lot.
So does Charlie. Basically, they get completely wasted every night, and on the first day of the film, Kate’s so hung over that something unfortunate happens at school. That leads to a serious misunderstanding with her principal (Megan Mullally, playing it straight) and a whole series of untruths that she has to manage in order to cover her tracks. The only person she confides in is Vice Principal Dave Davies (Mullally’s real-life husband, Nick Offerman), who, it turns out, has his own history of substance abuse.
Kate knows she’s in trouble. Things have gone from fun to painful to embarrassing to scary. She’s drunkenly trying other drugs, putting herself in dangerous situations and waking up in unsavory places. So, sure, she decides to go to a meeting with Dave, where she meets her sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer). And all that is great, except that Charlie has no interest in laying off the booze, and she’s getting more and more tangled up in the web of lies she’s told her boss.
Yeah. Smashed is that movie. Think of it as Scared Straight for the brakeless-bike set—in fact, there are scenes of Kate and Charlie weaving through traffic on their bikes, lucky not to be getting a different kind of smashed.
I really like Winstead. She graduated from horror movies into bigger roles, but this is the first time she’s really been able to stretch. Smashed is truly her film, and because she’s so appealing, with those enormous anime eyes and all, it’s easy to root for her amid a battle against addiction. That’s enough to make Smashed good, but not enough to make it the champagne of alcohol movies.