Actors playing addicts onscreen is a time-honored tradition in Hollywood. Chances are if they’re an actor of note, they have played an addict at some point in their career.
Just one week after the nationwide release of director Robert Zemeckis’ welcome return to live-action filmmaking, Flight, featuring Oscar winner Denzel Washington’s bravura lead performance as an airline pilot attempting to keep his substance abuse under wraps, yet another fall 2012 film dealing with addiction hits local theaters.
In writer-director James Ponsoldt’s sophomore feature, Smashed, scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Black Christmas, Final Destination 3) takes a stab at establishing herself as a serious actress capable of oh so much more and succeeds. It helps that she avoids some of the expected choices associated with playing an addict, chief among them, chewing scenery for the sake of chewing scenery. Sure, there’s a bit of scenery chewing, but the film’s script, by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke (who also has a role in the film) wisely keeps it to a minimum.
In Smashed, which won a jury prize earlier this year at Sundance, Winstead stars as Kate, a grade-school teacher in her late-20s/early-30s whose frequent alcohol consumption finally gets the better of her when she gets sick in front of her young students while attempting to mask a hangover. The incident, which she fools almost everyone at the school, including the kind principal (Megan Mullally) to think is pregnancy-related, prompts the vice principal (Nick Offerman), a recovering alcoholic himself, to encourage Kate to check out his low-key AA group.
Kate acquiesces and, in the process, bonds with a group member (Octavia Spencer) whose love of baking has replaced her love for alcohol.
However, Kate’s road to sobriety isn’t an easy one as her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) is an alcoholic himself and is of the cloudy opinion that nothing was wrong with her hard-partying ways. As solidly played by Paul, one can‘t help but wonder if life-of-the-party Charlie is ever truly sober. Kate and Charlie’s mutual love of the sauce is what likely bonded them in the first place. And her wild child mother (Mary Kay Place) doesn’t really offer up much by way of support either.
Winstead’s pretty much in every single frame of the film, and is surrounded by a strong supporting cast comprised of three Emmy winners Paul (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”), Mullally (“Will & Grace”) and Place (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman“), not to mention “Parks and Recreation’s” Offerman, and Oscar winner Spencer (The Help).
There’s very little artifice at play here, which is refreshing, but that’s probably got more to do with the film’s small budget and shooting schedule (Smashed was shot in 19 days for $500,000) than with choices the filmmakers likely would have made had they had more time and more money to work with.
It’s probably safe to say that the only screaming Winstead will be called upon to do after her breakout performance in Smashed will be if she’s completely overlooked come awards season.
Grade: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Kyle Gallner, Mary Kay Place and Octavia Spencer
Directed By: James Ponsoldt
Written By: James Ponsoldt & Susan Burke
Produced By: Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling, and Jennifer Cochis
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Rating: R, for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2012