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Surviving sobriety in Smashed



A spoiler alert is required for Smashed, a new alcoholism drama. But the spoiler doesn't involve the plot details of this affecting, if mostly unsurprising film. Rather, it pertains to the radiant actress at the film's center. She's tall and makeup-free, sporting frowsy hair, long skirts, cardigan sweaters and sandals and channeling a 1970s feminine aesthetic, like Jill Clayburgh, perhaps, or Gena Rowlands.

In Smashed, which is a film that could have been made as easily in 1975 as in 2012, this actress is a first-grade teacher prone to showing up at work sick from a bender. The earthy beauty of her performance suggests Michelle Williams' work in recent years, especially Blue Valentine. The film is clearly a vehicle for this actress, but as I watched it I just couldn't figure out who she was, until her name finally appeared at the closing credits.

Here's the spoiler: She is a starlet named Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who normally acts in heavy makeup playing more glamorous and artificial roles. For moviegoers of a certain age, my cluelessness might elicit a "duh?!" But I'm afraid I missed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in which Winstead played Mary Todd Lincoln to Benjamin Walker's rail-splitter and stake-driver, and I also missed her headlining turn in Final Destination: 3. More inexcusably, I failed to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in which the Rocky Mount, N.C., native played Michael Cera's love interest.

My point, then, is that a less naïve viewer might readily see Smashed for what it is: a vehicle for an ambitious young talent to escape the straitjacket of typecasting—the good girl in horror films or the manic pixie dream girl object of young nerd's desire. Many actors have made, or reinvented, their reputation with breakout, award-winning indie film turns—Charlize Theron in Monster, or Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. But Smashed, co-written by Susan Burke and James Ponsoldt and directed by the latter, is a less memorable story with more ordinary characters. Still, it's a showcase for Winstead's considerable charm—and oddsmakers are giving her an outside shot at an Oscar nomination.

Winstead is Kate Hannah, a Los Angeles schoolteacher who lives with her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul), who affects creative aspirations but mostly drinks, as does she. The film begins as Kate is hitting bottom. A few humiliations at work and scary nighttime debauches convince her to join AA, with the encouragement of a sympathetic co-worker. The film deals with the messes that must be cleaned up once you've become sober and explores the tensions that arise when one partner in an alcohol-soaked relationship decides it's time to dry out.

I could have done without the wise-black-woman-saying-wise-things (Octavia Spencer), who becomes Kate's sponsor. And although Aaron Paul is quite good, I hoped for a different actor. Paul sports the same closely cropped hair he wears as Breaking Bad's Jesse, a not-dissimilar character. Smashed, then, can occasionally be mistaken for an extended subplot of the celebrated television show, minus the taut dialogue, merciless plotting and emotional cruelty.

Still, this is Winstead's movie, and she's a charmer. The filmmakers find just the right note on which to end the film; the way it closes on Winstead's face is perfect in every sense.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Both sides now."

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Director: James Ponsoldt

Writer: James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke

Producer: Jennifer Cochis, Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner, Bree Turner, Mackenzie Davis and Patti Allison

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