Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: "Smashed"

Mary Elizabeth Winstead may be best known for her starring role in Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010) or a few horror films I have never seen. With Smashed, she firmly states that she has arrived as an actress. It is the second feature film from James Ponsoldt, and without Winstead's brave and completely honest performance, Smashed would be a forgettable film about alcohol abuse. Winstead creates a character that the audience can champion. She is flawed and makes a terrible number of personal and professional mistakes. Yet, through it all, Winstead makes Kate Hannah an honest woman who desperately wants to change her path. Smashed features an eclectic cast of character actors:  Aaron Paul (TV's Breaking Bad) plays Kate's co-dependent alcoholic husband; Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) stars as Kate's principal; Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation) plays Kate's vice principal and confidant; and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) stars as her sponsor. What obviously makes Kate's alcohol dependency more glaring is the fact that she is a primary school teacher. As a teacher, I am appalled by the lack of support offered to Kate at school, but I do understand cinematic necessity. Smashed is not an amazing piece of film making and it would be generic and formulaic without the performance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Every awards season offers one breakthrough performance, and it looks like 2012 is the year of Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

After a night of heavy drinking, Kate Hannah (Winstead) arrives at school hungover. She takes a few sips of whiskey from her flask (sitting in the console of her car!) before entering the building. While in the midst of a lesson, Kate throws up in front of her grade one class. This prompts her students to ask if she is pregnant, and in an effort to save herself from embarrassment and consequences, she says yes. She is stopped by Dave Davies (Offerman), her vice principal, who reveals that he witnessed her drinking in the parking lot. Dave has been sober for nine years and he encourages Kate to join him at an Alcoholics Anonymous Kate knows this is a bad situation and accepts Dave's invitation. At the meeting, she meets Jenny (Spencer), who becomes her sponsor. Kate tries her hardest to get sober, but her personal life and the lies she has been spinning are obstacles that could get in her way.

There have been a lot of films about alcoholism. Even films about couples suffering together. One of the best is Mike Nichols' 1966 film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A major difference between it and Smashed is that Kate and Charlie live one step above the poverty line. Both Kate and Charlie may have jobs, but I continuously wondered how they were consistently able to afford all the liquor and beer that littered their house. There are so many heartbreaking scenes with Mary Elizabeth Winstead on screen by herself. One in particular, after a bad night at the bar which ended with her smoking crack, she woke up in the train yard and I really thought she had been mugged and that her car had been stolen. She evokes such emotion with her facial features and the look of remorse and embarrassment that covered her face made me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, the weakest part of the film for me was Aaron Paul. Just like Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, he is playing an addict. Besides the addiction of choice, I notice very few differences between the characters. I wish that his newfound fame and Emmy Award had led him to a better choice of film role. Luckily, Mary Elizabeth Winstead offers such a winning performance that Smashed rises above. The spectrum of emotions that she creates is truly astounding.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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