Sundance 2012: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Astounding in 'Smashed'
by Ethan Anderton
January 28, 2012
It's hard to tell a story of the struggles of alcoholism without coming off like a melodramatic after school special, but thankfully director James Ponsoldt has come around with Smashed. Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) stars along with Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") as a married couple seemingly enjoying the good life with a house provided by the latter's wealthy parents and fun late nights with beers, whiskey and more. Together, this trio has turned in a simultaneously funny and harrowing tale of a young alcoholic lost in inebriation and desperate to stop drowning her life in liquor.
Keeping the film from venturing into cheesy drama is a finely tuned script from Ponsoldt and screenwriter Susan Burke, who actually struggled with alcoholism on her own. While most films that deal with alcoholic characters only deal with the monstrous, ugliness of the disease, Smashed dabbles with the struggles, benefits and sometimes difficult consequences of becoming sober as well. Simply doing away with alcohol isn't a path to sunshine, rainbows and a care-free life. In fact, it only makes your problems more apparent and hard to deal with, and Burke and Ponsoldt have accurately brought those elements to light with this story. The film isn't always dark and dramatic as there's some great laughs to be had from certain drunken behavior, but it never celebrates it.
However, the words on the page wouldn't be so agonizing in their portrayal if it wasn't for a phenomenal breakthrough performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah. This is easily the most challenging role in her career up to this point, but the actress' dramatic chops are nothing short of astounding. Winstead is one of the most charming drunks to grace the big screen since Dudley Moore in Arthur, and it's her bewitching, fun-loving personality that makes her fall from grace that much more afflicting. The difference between Kate while absolutely wasted and sober is honest and real, a refreshing departure from the overacting that usually comes with these kind of portrayals. On a dime Winstead turns from a jovial drinker to a sad and angry drunk, and it's just mesmerizing and heartbreaking.
The supporting cast helps Winstead shine as well including Aaron Paul as her drunk counterpart Charlie Hannah, Nick Offerman as a forward and flirty former alcoholic and co-worker at the school in which Kate teaches, Octavia Spencer as Kate's sponsor, and Megan Mullally as a somewhat flighty school principal. It's these familiar characters and settings that make this story that much more grounded and raw as Kate isn't just a lazy alcoholic down on her luck, but rather a well-rounded elementary school teacher (seemingly a very good one) who just happens to have a very debilitating addiction to the sauce. Again, it's a combination of a great script and stellar performances that really make the film compelling.
Smashed is not just another sappy tale of alcoholism and a broken family. The film is a story about redemption, but without the cut and dry contrast of the drunk life versus the sober life. Winstead has an awesome monologue about her life, the affect sobering up can have on a person's life without only positive outcomes, and the image of Alcoholics Anonymous that encapsulates what makes this film one of the best presentations of alcoholism captured on film. Ponsoldt and Winstead should both get pretty busy once this film gets a bigger audience because both talents have achieved something special with Smashed.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 8.5 out of 10