Featuring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writer: James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: lite)
Young married couple Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) routinely spend their nights at bars or drinking with friends, and often kick on later at home. Charlie freelances as an occasional music reviewer, and thus can sleep in after their nightly revelries, but primary school teacher Kate frequently finds herself nursing a hangover in the classroom. On one such occasion, she vomits in front of her students, which she excuses by lying that she is pregnant.
This, as well as episodes of urinary incontinence and a lost night in which she smokes crack for the first time and ends up sleeping on the street at a derelict haunt, sound warning bells that her drinking is out of control. Fellow teacher and recovering alcoholic David (Nick Offerman) convinces her to accompany him to an AA meeting, and she subsequently commits to sobriety. As a result, she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about her primary relationships, to face up to some responsibilities she has been avoiding, and to make some hard and life-altering decisions.
The trajectory from addiction to rehabilitation as dramatised here will ring true to those who have experienced it for real, or know someone who has – and there are many of us. Problem is, this is a reductive treatment of a complex subject that covers too much ground too quickly, without pausing to grapple with the devil lurking in the detail.
Kate’s realisation that she has ‘a problem’ is credible enough, but her progress to rehabilitation is all too neat. She moves almost effortlessly to accepting AA as an essential next step, and then to sobriety and rehabilitation. Well, I’m exaggerating; she does have some challenges and setbacks along the way. But her path is not rocky enough, her lows potholes, rather than pits of despair. She’s able to get back on track too easily, resuming the Good Fight with the support of her wise and faithful AA sponsor, Jenny (a somewhat stereotypical character brought convincingly to life by Octavia Spencer).
Charlie, although initially bemused and uncomfortable with Kate’s declaration that she is quitting drinking, is pretty damned decent about it all. Remarkably selflessly for a fellow alcoholic threatened by his partner going straight, he moves quickly from serving up rationalisations and denials to tempt his wife back into her drinking buddy role, to supporting her – although he stops short of giving up drinking himself.
As Kate begins to find her new sober self, Charlie is depicted as veering dangerously off-course, both metaphorically and literally – on his bicycle, unhelmeted and homeward bound after a skinful, he wobbles between traffic and the curb before coming a cropper, fortunately clear of passing cars. The contrast between newly sober and self-developing Kate and psychologically fossilised deteriorating alcoholic Charlie is forced and too stark; her rehabilitation and his decline are unrealistically symmetrical and rapid, the screenwriter’s hand hovering conspicuously overhead. It’s all too black and white.
The performances partly compensate for the shortcomings of the script. Winstead builds on her character as the narrative progresses. I didn’t quite buy her in the beginning, but she’d sold me by the end. Nick Offerman is terrific as socially-challenged recovering alcoholic David. He carries off a direly inappropriate (but funny) line in attempting to hit up on Kate that in itself is just about worth the price of admission…and serves as demonstration that quitting alcohol is not an automatic remedy for dysfunctional behaviour!
Aaron Paul is predictably believable as pisshead Charlie. I say predictably, because his genius portrayal of improbably endearing crackhead Jesse in the brilliant TV series Breaking Bad fits him up as the go-to man of the moment for addict roles. However, the Charlie character is acting by numbers for Paul. If only this movie had investigated in depth the dynamics of Kate and Charlie’s relationship as they began to move in different directions, this might have been an opportunity for him to flex some real acting muscle (not to mention making for a more meaningful investigation of alcoholism). As things stand, though, he has nowhere interesting to go with Charlie, who has none of the edginess, complexity or intelligence of Jesse. Paul is in danger of being typecast. Hopefully his agent (or whoever) will guard against boxing him into these types of roles in the future.
As we walked back to the car after the viewing, my partner summed up her response to Smashed with a wryly delivered quote from South Park’s guidance counsellor, Mr Mackey: “Drugs are bad, mm-kay?”
Many a true word…
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