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Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a fine alcoholic. In Smashed, her character, Kate, talks too loud. She wavers too much. She hunts for remnants of liquor like they were drops of water in a desert, and her moods swing like a pendulum. To her husband, Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), she’s his “drunk, drunk, drunk angel.” To a roomful of bar patrons, she’s an enthusiastic, loose-limbed, off-key karaoke queen. And to the homeless female crack smoker to whom she gives an inebriated ride, she’s “a hardcore drinking bitch like me!” Kate ends up smoking crack that night and sleeping it off under a bridge.
It’s not the only bad spot she’s gotten herself into lately: After waking up hungover and taking swigs of beer in the shower and a chaser from a flask in her car, Kate vomits in front of her first-grade class. “Ms. Hannah, are you pregnant?” a student asks. Yeah, that’s it, she says. Whoops. The news flies up to the so-happy-for-her! principal (Megan Mullally) so fast that—well, her head was already spinning. Now she has to fake a pregnancy. As Kate tells Charlie when she’s explaining why she wants to curb her vice, “The drinking leads to everything stupid that I do.”
Winstead’s not exactly a familiar face; even in her probably best-known role, as Ramona in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, she was semidisguised under ever-changing hair colors. But her Kate—if anyone bothers to see this film—may finally get her noticed. If her performance is short of the Oscar-winning brilliance of Nicolas Cage’s charismatic drunk in Leaving Las Vegas, blame the writing: Co-scripted by director James Ponsoldt (whose first film, 2006’s Off the Black, was also about an alcoholic) and first-timer Susan Burke, Smashed is compelling thanks to Winstead, but ultimately superficial. When Kate starts going to AA meetings, encouraged by her kinda-creepy vice principal (Nick Offerman) in whom she confides (seemingly stupidly at first), suddenly another “friend of Bill” is saying how hard the first three months are and effectively offering Kate congratulations.
So, we see Kate go to one meeting, then she’s sober. Easy-peasy.
Arguably, Smashed is really about the trials an alcoholic faces in her post-drinking life—predominantly how her relationships change, especially with her drinking buddies, and the guilt she feels about all her past bad behavior while under the influence. (At times, Kate is practically feral, a state particularly well-demonstrated in one scene in which a convenience store clerk won’t sell her wine after the legal cutoff time.) But damn, getting off the sauce is a trial, too, and one Ponsoldt should have shown us. There’s no struggle here except for the decision to get sober in the first place (and even that is portrayed as being as easily made by Kate as what to wear that day) and how to negotiate situations in which alcohol is present once she’s clean. (“Go to the bar!” she tells Charlie when he and his friends tempt her. Whew, that was close!)
Octavia Spencer co-stars as Kate’s sponsor, and through her AA speeches and talks with Kate, we get some idea of what the process is like. But Kate’s the one we’re interested in. And even though Winstead is in nearly every scene, just like the character in her partying days, we don’t ever get quite enough.