It's an honest take on the dark subject matter of alcoholism. Unfortunately, the film feels like it is missing clear direction and falls apart a bit in the third act.
Trying to balance a humorous, honest and emotional film about alcoholism seems like an impossible task but it is what James Ponsoldt’s Smashed attempts to do. The film has earned some recognition by winning the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize and recently receiving an Independent Spirit Award nod for Best Female Lead. While Smashed centers around a characters dependence on alcohol, the film itself is largely dependent on the performance of its characters to carry it. For the most part they do but were relied on too much as the script wears thin by the third act.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie Hannah (Aaron Paul) wake up in urine stained bed sheets but shrug it off as not a big deal which implies that it is a common occurrence. Kate is seen showering with a beer after a heavy night of drinking before heading off to work as an elementary school teacher. Before entering class, she takes some drinks from her flask. When she is teaching, however, she is the fun teacher that is very energetic playing with all the kids. That is until all the movement causes her to throw up in front of them.
Someone without a strong dependence on alcohol would most likely feel ashamed by this and would have seen the incident as a sign. But instead Kate goes out the same night to a local bar and does karaoke, of course under the influence of alcohol. One event leads to another and she ends up smoking crack after a prostitute convinces her to give her a ride. She wakes up on the street the next morning and finally starts to consider the fact that she has a problem.
After talking to one of her co-workers about her problem, Kate gets introduced to an Alcoholics Anonymous program. She starts attending meetings with her co-worker and begins to transform into a new sober person. People told her that the beginning of sobriety was the hardest yet it was not as difficult on her as it was on the relationship between her and her husband. The story ends up being whether Kate can continue to fight through her addiction by herself or cave into her old destructive self by staying with Charlie.
The cast ends up being by far the best asset of Smashed. Mary Elizabeth Winstead shines in a role that is dark and depressing. As the film progresses, you see the different sides of her character based on her level of sobriety. Aaron Paul plays a familiar role of the out of control substance abuser as he does in the excellent TV show Breaking Bad but is in the film less than you may imagine. Nick Offerman from another popular TV show, Parks and Recreation, plays the role of Kate’s co-worker who introduces her to AA. Offerman does well in the role but the role itself felt questionable. He is obviously an important part of the story as he leads Kate in the right direction but after one awkward scene you wonder if he was just meant for comic relief.
This leads into what I think was the biggest problem of Smashed, and that is the direction (or lack of direction) the film wanted to take. At times Smashed felt like it was aiming for the end product to be a light dramedy. Demonstrated when Kate is drinking whiskey in her car before teaching class, the music was light and almost cheerful. By the end it feels like it was an attempt to make it a dark character study that is a little harder hitting. By no means is having a balance a bad thing but this felt more like indecisiveness than anything.
Smashed is a sincere character study about a woman that deals with an addiction that grows beyond her control and the consequences that come from it. It is an honest take on a dark subject matter of alcoholism. Unfortunately, the film feels like it is missing clear direction and falls apart a bit in the third act. A couple of the characters felt underwritten, forcing Mary Elizabeth Winstead to do most of the heavy lifting which she fortunately handles well. Smashed fits into the rare category of a film not being long enough, or perhaps edited down too much, for it to be completely effective.