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'Smashed' reveals the fun of drinking — and the costs

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‘Smashed'

• 4 stars

• Directed by James Ponsoldt

• Stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer.

• R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use

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By Bill Goodykoontz
Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
 

The cheerful drunk can be a welcome presence at a party or a night out.

It's when he or she isn't so cheerful anymore, and just drunk, that things deteriorate. For everyone involved.

Luckily for “Smashed,” James Ponsoldt's look at alcoholism in a young couple, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of the drunks in question. She gives a flat-out great performance as Kate Hannah, a wife and teacher who, at the beginning of the film, sticks her head out of the morning shower to finish off the last few sips of a beer.

She follows that up with a few swigs from a flask in the parking lot of the elementary school where she works. Her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), a music writer when he gets around to it, is busy sleeping off the previous night's festivities.

Only on this morning, as Kate teaches, there is a complication: Suddenly nauseated, she vomits into a garbage can in front of all her students. Stunned, grossed out, amused, one student suggests a cause: Are you pregnant, Mrs. Hannah?

Caught off guard, reeling, hungover, buzzed, whatever, Kate makes a fateful decision.

She says yes.

This sets in motion the heart of the story. Kate has a pretty good idea that her drinking is out of control. This is driven home forcefully the night she gives a woman a ride home, smokes crack with her and wakes up beside the Los Angeles River. Another night, an after-hours attempt to buy wine proves disastrous. But this is not a polemic. Ponsoldt also shows the messy good times Kate and Paul have while they're drinking. At times, getting drunk seems like the one thing the pair have in common.

When Kate realizes she needs to quit, Charlie doesn't try to make her drink. He's just always there, beer in hand, ready to hand her one. He's more of an observer in their marriage at times than an actual participant. (And, unfortunately, in the movie. Paul is a great actor without a lot to do here.)

Dave (Nick Offerman), the vice principal at Kate's school, saw her drinking in the parking lot that morning and has a pretty good idea of what's going on. He's in AA and invites Kate to a meeting. Charlie won't go, but he doesn't stand in Kate's way; if anything, he seems bemused by the notion.

Kate finds a worldly wise sponsor in Jenny (Octavia Spencer) and is happy with her progress. But it's not easy. Honesty is one of the hallmarks of AA, but Kate learns that it sometimes comes at a harsh price.

The movie doesn't preach or offer any miracle cures, not for Kate's drinking or her marriage or anything else. Life is a lot of work, whether you're an alcoholic or not. Kate's just requires more effort than most.

Everyone in the film is good. Offerman and Megan Mullally (as the principal at Kate's school) do well in more-dramatic roles than we're used to seeing them in. Mary Kay Place is harrowing without meaning to be as Kate's mother.

But this is Winstead's movie, to an almost unfortunate degree. She plays Kate just right, revealing the fun of drinking and the costs. She's believable, relatable and likable. But the script, by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, relies on her a little too much. “Smashed” would have been a better movie if Winstead hadn't been asked to carry quite so much of the load, but luckily, she's up to the task.

Bill Goodykoontz is a movie critic for The Arizona Republic.

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