Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives the performance of her career as Kate Hannah, an alcoholic whose struggles with the disease form the crux of Smashed. Kate’s dependency is established in the film’s opening scene as we observe the character awakening for work and unable to shower without taking a swig of stale beer. Keeping stride with her drinking is her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad), a writer who stays home and works while Kate teaches at a grammar school. This Los Angeles couple have a happy union and enjoy going out at night and drinking together. But one morning, after performing a karaoke version of that tough-love anthem “Cruel To Be Kind” while carousing the night before, Kate vomits suddenly in front of her young students. Although she covers for the shabby event with a lie about being pregnant, it gets Kate thinking about her situation. She also gets some gentle prodding from the substitute teacher who takes over her class: Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) is a recovering alcoholic and he seems to know a boozer when he sees one.
Kate’s recovery travels the usual movie route from AA meetings to backsliding to sage advice from sponsors. Complicating her progress is Charlie, who continues to drink while nevertheless supporting Kate in her efforts to get sober. The marriage grows strained, and the hard truth is that it may have to be jettisoned if Kate truly wants to recover. Overall, the film’s performances are understated and realistic, and Winstead gets to play both ends of the spectrum – soused and sober. Ponsoldt, who co-wrote Smashed with Susan Burke, directs the film with an even hand, imbuing the story with a tone of truthfulness. Yet, for all its honesty, Smashed is bereft of insights. It shows us that alcoholism is a disease rather than a character defect; it underscores the reality that quitting is hard and that the problem often runs in families (Mary Kay Place as Kate’s mom is a fright); and it demonstrates how staying sober can be an unending hurdle. None of this is news to most people. Smashed may be better at preaching to the choir and is likely to find its largest audience among struggling 12-steppers.