Directed by James Ponsoldt
Smashed is a sweet little independent drama about a woman’s sobriety that focuses less on the individual steps to recovery and more on the consequences of said sobriety. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a young married couple living somewhere in Los Angeles. They are both alcoholics, but life hasn’t challenged them to sober up yet. As Kate will say in an AA meeting, everyone she knows drinks so she never thought it was a problem.
Their drinking is the result, seemingly, of having things work out. It’s not one of those Hollywood scenarios or cliches in which a character turns to the bottle after the dissolution of a marriage or getting fired, though both of those things will happen at some point in this movie. Instead they drink because it’s fun, they can, and until the events of this movie begin they’ve had no good reason to quit.
One day Kate, an elementary school teacher, will throw up in front of her class thanks to the previous night’s binge drinking. When one of her young, impressionable students asks if she’s pregnant, she freezes then confirms that yes, she is indeed pregnant. Soon Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) will confess that she was never able to have children and thus showers Kate with attention and affection. When Kate mentions that she and her own mother have never been that close, you can almost see the principal’s eyes light up, knowing there is a maternal role open in young Kate’s life.
Another teacher, Dave (Nick Offerman) saw Kate drinking in the parking lot, and his initial stoicism gives way to a compassion stemming from his own sobriety. He has been sober 9 years at this point, of both drugs and alcohol, and he compels Kate to attend meetings with him. She will only relent after another night spent drinking leads to her smoking crack and waking up the next morning under a freeway. It won’t be the last time she wakes up on such cement.
Kate’s sudden sobriety will be told over the course of a brief montage, an effective one but the first of perhaps too many montages for a movie of this sort. A lot of the hard work is told through these playful images and delicate, tender music. You get the sense, in fact, that most of the interesting parts of this story are yada yada’d, in effect, and that leaves a bit of a scattered slice of life story in its wake.
The heart of the story is meant to be the relationship between Kate and Charlie. Her sobriety throws a wrench into their marriage since all they seem to do is drink and since he has no interest in quitting. The movie will end after a jump forward in time with the two separated. This ending, moving in its own way, feels a bit forced since most of the movie doesn’t deal with her and Charlie.
Instead much of the movie is just about Kate’s own sobriety, and her marriage and its dissolution is just a small part of that story. Charlie just feels like set dressing, and the amount of pathos in their final conversation, well I found it quite sincere and tender, but it just didn’t fit with what came before.
I appreciate this movie for what it’s trying to do. It tells a different tale about sobriety, about how when Kate quits drinking, she effectively becomes a new person and enters a new life. As she says midway through the film, she didn’t realize how so much of the hard part came after she quit drinking, with the reevaluation of her life and her choices. This isn’t meant to condemn Charlie, of course but rather to show that things don’t always fit neatly together. It’s a tender, human story.
And yet the movie at times is far too broad. Kate’s initial lie, about being pregnant, is there only to be the reason she is fired in the end. Early in the story it becomes clear that this is a problem, well, I guess it’s immediately a problem, but then the story just carries on as if it never happened, at least until the next time it becomes important. It doesn’t feel realistic, and when Kate receives a surprise baby shower, all while sporting those washboard abs, we know the problem is out of control, and even then she doesn’t decide to tell the truth until, it seems, the movie has reached the end of Act Two. It feels like a plot point in a short sketch, not a character moment in a character drama like this.
There’s also Dave Davies, her sober coworker and kind champion. He is the support she seemingly needs, but then there’s an inexplicable scene in which he admits his attraction to her and then experiences a sudden bout of Tourettes and becomes incredibly vulgar. Though he expresses immediate remorse and apologizes profusely, it’s a moment designed to put him on his heels and, I suppose, give Kate the moral high ground? I’m not sure what the intention was and it makes Dave feel like a one-dimensional character driven by little more than lust, rather than adding any character depth.
That being said, after the inevitable fallout when things tend to get bad in movies, the story wraps up rather nicely, perhaps a little too neatly, and it’s reassuring to see Kate supported by Dave and frickin’ Octavia Spencer, who plays her sponsor.
So Smashed is admirable in its ambition. It wants to tell a messy story about recovery and the things that must be shed in order to move forward sometimes, but it’s much too neat a movie for something so inherently messy. That’s why I suppose we montage our way through much of that mess. The “dark night of the soul” portion of the film will end with Kate drunk and disorderly, straddling her husband in desperation and despair while he tries to calm her down. Then we cut to black and fade in a year later, after their divorce and with her putting her life together.
It’s a nice image, of her growth, but it skips over so much I want to know about. That divorce? It must have been tough, but we just miss it, and thus I think the final image, of Kate and Charlie together, feels unearned because it’s missing something.
Up Next: Fyre (2019), Misery (1990), Nine to Five (1980)