If there’s an on-screen approximation of what it looks like to be rip-roaring soused, they’re not in history’s many AA sagas, which tend to be painfully earnest, as well as showcases for show-off drunk acting—surely the easiest form. These words don’t apply to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance in Smashed, in which she plays a grade school teacher who, by night, drinks like a particularly alcoholic fish. The tone is less dramatic than darkly comic. One night, her misadventures go from drunk-karaoke to smoking crack in an alleyway. Initially, this seems like hysterical moralizing, booze postulated as a gateway to freebasing. But the incident passes: It’s not the low point that will drive Kate into cuddly group therapy (which is forthcoming), but just another crazy thing she did when she was gleefully impaired.
Winstead deserves all the accolades she’s received. A talented actress who has spent her career partly in scream-queen mode, she doesn’t try too hard to break into the big leagues, which is why she should get there. Her Kate is not a boozy ham, drinking to hide pain, as is traditionally the diagnosis of clueless screenwriters, but more like a kid who can’t stop playing. Even during a perhaps-too-far scene where she urinates in a store, she doesn’t overplay her hand, and many of her scenes—if not this one—show what few AA films show: that drinking to excess can be lots of fun.
It’s just too bad this performance is in Smashed. This is an all-over-the-place indie in terms of quality and insight; it’s perceptive about drinking, but less so about the not-drinking part. This is the kind of indie where the supporting characters are one-note grotesques who do things that would only occur in a screenwriter’s feverish brain. Poor Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, who play Kate’s ridiculous co-workers, who get a bizarre scene of rank inhumanity apiece. And poor Aaron Paul: He’s clearly great as Kate’s husband, who still likes to knock back a few brewskies from time to time. But his relationship with his recovering alkie wife, which should be the film’s crux, is sidelined till so late that what transpires between them comes off underexplored and unearned. And it takes Paul 55 minutes to say the word “bitch.”
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