If you like seeing Aaron Paul make sad puppy addict eyes and need your fix until the return of Breaking Bad; still haven’t gotten your heart back from Mary Elizabeth Winstead after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World; wish The Help would mainly serve to get Octavia Spencer better parts; or wonder what it would be like to hear Ron Swanson talk dirty to one of the Tammys, Smashed may be the movie for you. This slight addiction drama, which I saw at Sundance, feels unfortunately abbreviated, but it’s anchored by one hell of a performance by Winstead. And it’s honest and explicitly ugly about addiction without being grotesque, striking a difficult and effective balance.
I imagine it’s not news to any of you that the dude who portrays Jesse Pinkman can play an addict. But as Charlie, half of a married couple, both of whom are drunks, Paul tones thing down a bit. His alcoholism means he’s reckless—he’ll ride a bike drunk—and that his relationship to the universe is often blurred and softened. When he wakes up to find that his wife Kate has wet the bed in an alcoholic stupor, he jokes that his real job is to change their sheets. But Charlie is a music blogger, and apparently successful and functional enough in that occupation (plus, his parents helped buy the house he and Kate live in) that his drinking is never going to force a crisis.
That is not the case for Kate, whose alcoholism appears to be somewhat more severe than Charlie’s. She doesn’t just work outside of their house—she teaches elementary school, an environment that’s not particularly friendly to people with hangovers so bad they throw up in class. To avoid confessing that she’s a drunk, Kate lets her class and her coworkers think she’s pregnant, an impression that’s particularly dangerous giving that her principal (Megan Mullally) has never been able to conceive, and gets overinvested in the idea of Kate having a child.
As Kate stumbles towards recovery, stops drinking, and relapses, Winstead gives a remarkably un-vain performance. Bottom for her turns out to be not just the night she drunkenly decides to take a hit of crack and wakes up under a bridge, but relieving herself on the floor of a liquor store that refuses to sell her more wine. And the movie is blunt about exploring the link between Kate’s drinking and her sexual aggressiveness. In one disturbing scene, when Charlie falls asleep while he and Kate are having sex, she hits him while trying to keep him awake, and then continues to have even when he can’t be roused. When Kate relapses, she pushes herself on Charlie even when he’s trying both to get her to stop drinking and rejecting her advances. Stories about women assaulting men tend to be treated as if they’re non-existent or limited to police procedurals, and I appreciate that Smashed has the integrity to treat Kate’s behavior for the disturbing boundary-crossing that it is. Kate may not be a feminist ideal, but presenting her actions with honesty and nuance means the movie is a refreshing break with gender types in these sorts of stories.
I wish the movie had spent a bit more time showing Kate digging her way out of the enormous hole she’s dug for herself. We get to meet Jenny (Octavia Spencer), her sponsor, who tells us that “All I knew about taking care of myself was fucking people over…Maybe I’ve have replaced alcohol with chocolate chip cookies and nacho cheese…From now on I will enjoy my donuts. but I prefer them to hangovers” but it would be nice to see more of her life beyond her role as a mentor to Kate. And while I appreciate James Ponsoldt’s decision not show Kate in the cliche throes of detox, the movie could have spent more time watching her rebuild a sober life. Drinking isn’t like a breakup: leaving alcohol behind has required Kate to rebuild her entire life, and I’d have been curious to see more of her path to professional, emotional, and sexual health.