Judge Gordon Sullivan is coping with his addiction to ginger ale.
"A bond built on mutual love of music, laughter and drinking…especially the drinking."
Issue movies are tough to pull off. Anytime something serious and adult rears its head—addiction, abuse, poverty—the temptation is always to either go straight into melodrama territory or the opposite direction into "gritty." The old-fashioned characters study goes immediately out the window, which is a shame, because one of the best ways to study characters is under the microscope of difficulty brought about by real-world problems. Smashed attempts to take precisely that tack, exploring the ramifications of sobriety on a central character and her life without either getting "gritty" or melodramatic. It's a vehicle that showcases a pair of amazing young actors, though it's not always pleasant to watch.
Facts of the Case
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and Charlie (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) have the perfect partying relationship. They're young, they're in love, and they enjoy going out and drinking. It's not a big deal for Charlie, but it begins to interfere with Kate's work as a schoolteacher. She decides to get sober, but sobriety has its consequences, too.
The terrible truth of addiction is that—generally speaking—it's not like drugs are evil, nasty substances that jump unsuspecting strangers in the night. Nope, most addicts are people with problems, and even though those problems may be no more difficult than sober people face, addicts choose to medicate with their substance of choice. That makes recovery doubly difficult, as addicts have to navigate their drug of choice and all the stuff that made them want an escape in the first place.
That's what Smashed gets right—it's a fairly clearheaded look at the reasons someone might want to get sober. There are no angelic epiphanies, just a clear sense of hitting bottom and being handed a way out. Kate's chance comes when her boss, played by Nick Offerman, reveals he has an AA chip. Once that happens, the film documents her recovery efforts with clear eyes; this is no When a Man Loves a Woman, all teary eyed confessions and stoic exasperation at love.
The success of the film has its roots in an unromantic view of recovery, but it wouldn't not have flowered with the talent of the cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been floating around Hollywood for over a decade just waiting for the role that would make her a star. She's shown a spark time and time again in small roles that did her no justice, but now with Smashed, she has the chance to shine, and she takes that chance for all it's worth. Her portrayal of Kate is likeable but flawed, and she's willing to go to the embarrassing places that being addicted demands (especially when your day job is working in a school). It's the kind of performance that gets ignored during awards season but will put Winstead's name on the top of casting call lists for the next several years. She's matched—in intensity if not character development—by Aaron Paul. We're used to seeing him on Breaking Bad, and it's only a slight pun to say that he's breaking out here. Charlie's got his stuff on lockdown compared to Kate, and Paul's performance is a bit more reined in. Even Offerman is well-chosen as the model of sobriety for Kate's transformation. As she gradually sobers up, the interactions between the actors get more and more intense, which they all do a fine job of selling.
The film is helped out by Smashed (Blu-ray). The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is excellent. Sourced from HD video, the film looks sharp and well-detailed throughout. Scenes of natural light are especially pleasing, and color is well-saturated and accurate. Black levels stay stable and deep throughout. It's not meant to be an example of stunning clarity, but despite the slightly dingy look the film aims for it looks great on this disc. The DTS-HD surround track matches the film's video. It's not spectacular but instead supports the artistic intentions of the filmmakers. Dialogue is crisp and clear from the center, and it's well-balanced with the film's music. That music, along with select directional effects, fills out the soundstage wonderfully and really shows off the clarity of this track.
Extras start with a commentary by director James Ponsoldt and Winstead. The pair are chatty and discuss the film's production, the characters, and how they managed all the alcohol consumption on the film. It's a decent track that doesn't feel too weighty or too flighty. There's also a short making-of featurette, as well as a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival's red carpet. Some deleted scenes add character details but nothing too revelatory. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I appreciate the fact that Smashed doesn't go for Requiem for a Dream or Days of Wine and Roses territory, it does have some issues with tone. It's not quite sure when it's okay to be funny. It's also willing to throw its supporting characters under the bus to support the story of its protagonist. That means Nick Offerman's character gets a bit of a kick in the teeth towards the end of the flick which doesn't feel necessary. Obviously the subject matter won't appeal to everybody, no matter how light the film's tone is. Addiction and recovery are no fun, and the film doesn't flinch from some of their more upsetting facets.
Smashed is that rare indie film that's good, but less than the sum of its parts. The story is a fine take on addiction and recovery cycle, and the performances from the younger actors is positively striking. However, the film can't quite blend the two seamlessly, so Smashed only wows in fits and starts. Still, it'll be a calling card for everyone involved for years to come. The Smashed (Blu-ray) gives the flick a chance to shine, with a strong audiovisual presentation and a few nice supplements. It's worth a rental for fans of the actors and anyone interested in solid performances. Fans who caught the flick on the festival circuit can buy this one with confidence.
Not always fun, but not guilty.
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