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October 21, 2012

There are a lot of movies about alcoholism, but not so many about recovery. It’s easy to break things, but hard to fix them. And all too often recovery is easy and pretty, taking mostly the love of a supportive partner to get to a heartwarming Hollywood ending. Smashed is not pretty. It takes a darker approach, like Days of Wine and Roses, but in a more modern emotional style, stripped of that film’s 1960s melodrama, and with a stunning lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead to rival either of Lemmon’s or Remick’s.

Kate Hannah (Winstead) is an alcoholic. This much is clear. As she herself recognizes, terrible things happen when she drinks. Her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul) may or may not be. I know the default assumption is that heavy drinking is automatically alcoholism, and Charlie evidently answers yes to most of the standard questionnaire. He probably is, sure, but for the most part we don’t really see his drinking causing him a problem. He starts early and goes strong, spending every night at the bar watching bands and getting drunk, but he gets his review articles in to his editor on time, and we don’t hear about any complaints.

Kate is another story, but she won’t recognize it until she hits bottom. And what that will take is anybody’s guess. Will it be the night she gets in a fight trying to buy wine after 2 AM? Will it be the night she gives a stranger a ride from the bar and ends up smoking crack? Will it be throwing up, hungover in front of her first grade class and explaining it off as morning sickness? Her principal (Megan Mullally) may buy it, but fellow teacher Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman) is harder to convince. Nine years sober, he knows the signs.

Kate starts going to meetings — her first time speaking is one of the gems of Winstead’s performance — and gets herself a sponsor (Octavia Spencer). But getting sober is never the end of someone’s problems. Suddenly everything that was submerged in alcohol is out on the surface and must be dealt with. And how well do you think a marriage can work when one person is sober and the other still decorates the house with half-empty beer bottles?

To the credit of director James Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke, Alcoholics Anonymous is not as pristine as in Days of Wine and Roses. Recovering alcoholics still have the problems that got them into the bottle in the first place, and they’re not saints offering salvation. The script nails the language of recovery, both the slogans and recovering alcoholics’ ambivalent attitudes towards the slogans and the program.

And Winstead, for her part, nails the character of a recovering alcoholic. She lights up when she’s drinking, turning into a different person that, at least at first, it’s easy to understand wanting to be all the time. Her revelation comes slowly, in fits and starts, and she wears it all over her face.

Paul gives Winstead a solid foil to work off of, though Charlie isn’t exactly a huge leap from Jesse Pinkman. He’s not quite as irresponsible, and definitely not as blustery, but there are larger steps to be taken if Paul wants to avoid being mired in typecasting when Breaking Bad finishes its run next year. Still, this is a good start.

Smashed could have been longer and more dramatic. Ponsoldt and Burke could have worked in more lurid episodes to really destroy Kate and Charlie, and maybe the resulting movie would have been flashier and more superficially impressive, but that’s not what this story is. It’s a measured, honest, sober look at what it takes for one woman to get sober.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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