It’s tempting to call the alcohol rehab dramedy “Smashed” “The Daze of Whine and Rosés,” but that would be a tad dismissive of a movie that, despite numerous flaws, serves its concoctions straight up with a tangy twist of humor. Yet there’s no escaping the sensation that you’ve seen this movie many times before. About the only ingredient that renders it remotely unique is an Oscar-caliber performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the proverbial drunk with a heart – and liver – of Johnnie Walker Gold.
Winstead is so darn cute that it’s tough to resist the urge to pick her up and hug her, even when her Kate is blitzed and relieving herself on the floor of a liquor store that refuses to sell her one more bottle for the road. What makes that scene so shocking – and funny – is how sharply that Kate contrasts with the one we see semi-sober, teaching in front of her first-grade classroom. If only the kids knew what Teach does after school. Or, God forbid, their parents. But like all vices, Kate’s is about to catch up with her in a big way, as she rapidly runs short of lies and excuses, none bigger than the one she tells the school’s priggish principal (Megan Mullally) after heaving in the middle of a spelling lesson. It’s an up-chuck that serves as a wake-up to a fun-loving party girl who suddenly realizes she can’t live without her libations. “Drinking,” she correctly deduces, “is what leads to everything stupid that I do.”
Thus begins the first of her 12 steps to sobriety, but to truly hit the straight and narrow, she’s going to need the support of a husband (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) with a drinking problem even bigger than hers. This is where obstacles begin to arise for both Kate and the movie, which wants to be a light-hearted examination of what’s stronger, love or alcohol. But director James Ponsoldt, who also co-wrote the script with recovering alcoholic Susan Burke, is like a drunk struggling to keep his vehicle from crossing the centerline. And the longer “Smashed” weaves uncontrollably between drama and yuks (many of them courtesy of Nick Offerman as Kate’s tactless sponsor), the higher the odds of it going off the road. What saves it is a hauntingly realistic performance from Winstead, who transcends the rote mechanisms of the genre to take you higher and higher.
You can’t get enough of it, growing addicted to Winstead’s combination of adorability and gravitas, as she takes Kate on a rocky road to recovery. Even when Kate predictably falls temporarily off the wagon, Winstead (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) somehow manages to keep it real and riveting. She’s at her peak, though, opposite Paul, whose Charlie is the world’s worst enabler, a man wholly unacquainted with maturity and responsibility. But as good as Winstead and Paul are in their scenes together, they can’t erase the feeling that “Smashed” is woefully weak in achieving its main objective, which is to examine alcoholism’s toll on today’s 20-somethings.
Page 2 of 2 - Ponsoldt and Burke make some interesting points, but too much of it fails to go more than two fingers deep. And with a running time that struggles to reach 80 minutes, that’s a sign of laziness more than an unyielding editor. It also leaves you wondering how much higher Winstead could go if given the freedom to fully flesh out her character. Ditto for Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, egregiously wasted as Kate’s chief AA confidante. Still, like watered-down whiskey, “Smashed” has just enough kick to get you tipsy, even if it leaves you feeling a bit cheated.
SMASHED (R for language, alcohol abuse, some sexual content and brief drug use.) Cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer and Megan Mullally. Co-written and directed by James Ponsoldt. 2.5 stars out of 4.