January 26, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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James Ponsoldt’s SMASHED (not to be confused with NBC’s Smash), which premiered in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance, is a new spin on a fairly old story.  The concept goes back (at least) to 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses:  a couple (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul), very much in love with both booze and each other, finds that they don’t make as much sense together once one of them–in this case, Winstead’s Kate–gets sober.


What makes Smashed feel fresh is the script by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, which introduces some humor and ambiguity into what is usually a drearily pedantic genre. Kate does awful things when she’s drunk, far worse than what Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick did in Wine and Roses (and some of them are in front of the 1st grade class she teaches), but she’s sometimes quite funny when she does them.  And even when she’s getting sober, she retains a sardonic edge, both about AA (which is never explicitly named) and sobriety in general.  This isn’t the kind of movie where we have to follow the protagonist tearfully make amends for prior actions–in fact, the one time we see Kate admit to some past lies, the result is disastrous.  It helps that the supporting cast includes people like Nick Offerman (as a fellow teacher in recovery), Megan Mullaly (as the principal) and Octavia Spencer (as Kate’s sponsor).  All are sharply-drawn characters with some depth.

The lead in a movie like this is reliably an opportunity for tour de force acting, and Winstead, who hasn’t been much more than pretty in movies like Scott Pilgrim and The Thing, really delivers.  Completely deglamorized, she has to carry virtually every scene, in tones that range from physical humor to profound sadness to scorching drama, and she pulls off every step of the journey.  She and Paul have great compatibility as an on-screen couple, and their relationship believably evolves from nights of drunken camaraderie to a marathon argument that leaves them, and the audience, shaken.  The script and Winstead’s performance enrich Kate by allowing us to see her in quite a few contexts:  as a daughter (her mother played by Mary Kay Place) and a friend as well as a wife and a woman getting sober.

Smashed can’t completely avoid the rote feel of its basic story.  While Kate is beautifully realized, Paul’s Charlie is perhaps inevitably a thinner character–he’s just the guy who’d prefer to stay drunk, and the fact that we’ve seen Paul play stoned at length on the brilliant Breaking Bad doesn’t leave much room for surprise in his performance.

The getting-sober genre is mostly been taken over by television in recent years, and although Smashed makes good use of its limited budget, it’s unlikely to find a wide audience.  Winstead’s performance, however, and the complexity with which her character has been realized, make the film worth seeking out.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."