In any movie about a recovering alcoholic there inevitably comes a scene when the recovering alcoholic enters a bar – usually in the afternoon – and sits down and orders a drink and stares it and his/her potential relapse down. But what always strikes me most profoundly in these inevitable scenes is the bartender’s detached voice. For instance, in the just released Smashed when Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate, a few months sober, enters the bar in mid-afternoon in the face of a potential relapse the bartender – whose face at first is not even seen – simply asks: “What do you need?” Like she’s just another customer, no one special, and he is utterly oblivious to the massive internal drama playing out before him and the awfulness that looms with his serving of but a single drink.
It is in moments such as this when the true road to recovery is glimpsed. There is a hammered home line much later in the proceedings that says the same thing but this image, I suspect, is always employed in these movies because it so ably captures that in spite of the necessary support of sponsors and groups and friends and family that, when you cut through all the proverbial red tape, it is a choice YOU have to make.
Before the title credit for Smashed has even flashed, Kate has woken up dreadfully hungover, vomited in front of her students at the school where she teaches first grade, claimed she’s pregnant to cover for her transgression, left work early, returned to the bar, gotten drunk again, given a stranger a ride, smoked crack, and woken up on a couch outside in the middle of who-knows-where. And if this sounds sensational, its presentation by director James Ponsoldt (he wrote the screenplay with Susan Bruke) is not. It goes to show how quickly but easily and unknowingly things can unravel. It’s Kate’s cry for help, but she can’t really hear that cry herself.
The Vice Principle at her school (Nick Offerman, off kilter in a kind way) saw her drinking before class. He’s in AA and has been for years. He invites her to a session. She agrees. She determines to become sober. She finds a sponsor (Octavia Spencer). This will not be easy considering she was raised by a single mother (Mary Kay Place) who apparently placed a premium on a drinking and is married to a stay-at-home journalist (Aaron Paul) who while seeming to have enough good karma in his body to understand his wife’s decision to abstain from alcohol, is unwilling or unable to make the same decision for himself.
The small film placed firmly on her slender shoulders, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fantastic, refusing to showboat in the sort of role typically ripe for buzzed burlesque. She makes it clear that she ENJOYS drinking but that she has finally reached the understandable conclusion that she cannot KEEP drinking, or the consequences will be dire. And rather than wallowing in anger or depression she conveys a very real fear, the fact that she is entering a scary new world (and scarily boring) and is trying to hold on and make it through without knowing the way.
The film’s sore spot, however, is its third act. Upon building to a moment of supreme black-out terror, it chooses to jump forward in time a whole year. While I can understand Smashed not wanting to linger in the darkness and overstay its welcome, this decision means we see the spectacular bottoming out but none of the crucial hard work of pulling one’s self back up. It cheapens the process. It left an unfortunate aftertaste for an otherwise brisk and bold film.
Even so, it does not undermine Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s feats of strength. This is the acting of awards nominations.