Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 20, 2012 11:12 am 
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Alcoholism by the book, but with a light touch

Smashed is a very straightforward story of alcoholism and recovery that hits all the obvious notes. The hilarity, the debauchery, the trouble functioning at work, the increasing danger and humiliation turning to fear, followed by the Twelve-Step-assisted effort at getting sober. Then the crash, the relapse, and the slow struggle into a "boring" but lastingly better life, with the help of the Twelve Steps. This could almost be an AA instructional film. But what makes it worthwhile is the unusual frankness, the avoidance of sentimentality or any other false notes, and the good performances. First among these and quite spectacular is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as the protagonist, Kate. She's ably supported by a pitch-perfect Aaron Paul (of "Breaking Bad") as Kate's husband and drinking partner Charlie. Partly what saves Smashed is that it's surprisingly upbeat, largely through the ebullient personality of Kate as played by Winstead. A solid supporting cast including Octavia Spencer (The Help) as Kate's solid AA sponsor and veteran Mary Kay Place as her clueless, Bloody Mary-mixing mother also helps keep the proceedings bright.

Good cheer notwithstanding, Smashed spares us nothing. It doesn't hint: it shows. Kate is a party girl; she's even hilarious and histrionic in front of her elementary school class, and she thinks she's having fun. So when she gets to her alcoholic "bottom" it's a rude surprise for her. Not for us, though. In the opening sequence we see her drink a beer while taking her morning shower -- hung over -- and then gulp whisky from a flask in her car before going in to work. She teaches an elementary school class, and after a long night's drunk with Charlie and friends she humiliates herself in front of her kids, which leads to telling a lie that later gets her deeper and deeper into trouble.

The serious downward slide includes one especially humiliating later scene where Kate begs to be sold two bottles of wine after hours at a convenience store and then urinates uncontrollably on the floor. On another occasion amid the endless party nights she leaves Charlie at the bar because she has "work to do" but then picks up a dubious woman abandoned out front to give her a ride, and is lured by her into smoking crack, after which she wakes up in a vacant lot. This is when she starts getting scared about what's happening to her.

Smashed is equally frank about sex and relationships. Kate and Charlie, whose well off family bought their house, and who doesn't work, have a marriage like many alcoholics that is based on partying together. When Kate gets sober, Charlie doesn't. They pretend this is okay, but the time comes when it isn't, when he can't be supportive of her recovery anymore and she can't put up with him. Kate is rescued and led to her first 12-Step meetings by her vice principal Dave (Nick Offerman), who's 8 years sober. But he is turned on by her and says some seriously inappropriate things to her.

Kate has lied to the principal (Megan Mullally) to cover up one of her mistakes, and this builds and builds and rubs wrong against the AA admonition that a sober person must learn honesty and stop covering up. But sometimes the new convert to sobriety carries this theme too far, and Kate does, with dire consequences for her job. Smashed shows another basic recovery lesson: that being sober only reveals a person's underlying problems, so "life on life's terms" gets harder, not easier, except that without the booze, the recovering alcoholic or addict at least has cleared away the protective fog that only complicated things. And of course Kate's boozy mom and her charming but layabout husband are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

There is a subplot about Kate's deception at work that may seem unnecessary. But it's actually a good objective correlative for the lies addicts tell and the trouble they bring on, as well as the difficulties and dangers of honesty. The screenplay by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke covers all the necessary stages of its process and does so logically and without ever seeming contrived.

Smashed is honest and lighthearted also in its conclusion. When Kate gets her first important AA chip she rejects the AA cliché that your worst day sober is better than your best day as a drunk. She insists she had lots of good times as drunks and being sober is duller and poorer, even though she's happy to have her new life.

This movie is an unusually direct treatment of alcoholism that's straightforward and honest about working out of it. Its felt, realistic treatment of relationship and work issues -- and Windstead's splendid performance -- keep it involving and not preachy. However, it's heavy stuff, and light touch or no, may be disturbing for the squeamish.

Smashed, 81min., debuted at Sundance in January 2012, and went into limited US release Oct. 12.

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