Some people can drink for fun, and some people can’t, and figuring out you’re in the latter camp is rarely pretty. Smashed introduces a schoolteacher who’s bottoming out hard: Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a heavy drinker in her mid-20s, and “fun drunk” is fast dissolving into sad, destructive, smoking-crack-under-a-bridge drunk.
Smashed spends its first third or so establishing Kate’s boozy bona fides: First, she lies to her students and her principal about why she’s vomiting at work, and then there’s the aforementioned crack incident. It isn’t long before she’s pissing in the corner of a convenience store at 2 a.m. after the clerk refuses to sell her any more booze. Where Smashed diverges from most alcoholic cautionary tales, though, is in acknowledging that drinking can be fun. Kate and her husband Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) might drink all the time, but they often have a good time doing it. For a while, at least, booze transforms the raw materials of their life—sex and bike rides and late-night croquet games—into intense, glamorous adventures.
But the consequences of Kate’s drinking keep piling up, and when her laconic vice principal invites her to an AA meeting, she nervously explains to the group that, recently, “Things have gone from embarrassing to scary.” Charlie supports her decision to get sober, but when his own partying continues unabated, the couple is left to figure out whether their entire relationship was based on sharing the type of good times Kate is no longer capable of having.
Winstead’s smart performance utterly grounds the film, even as Smashed’s narrative feels underdeveloped—Kate’s drunken exploits are thoroughly documented, but her recovery itself is glossed over, focusing more on how her sobriety affects her relationships than on the process of getting sober in the first place. Where Smashed really succeeds, though, is in offering a nuanced, human portrait of an alcoholic. Kate is a good person who does bad things when she’s drunk, and the film doesn’t downplay the fact that Kate and Charlie had some pretty fun times when they were drinking together. It’s refreshing to see a movie that permits this kind of complexity, and it’s impossible not to root for Kate as she finds the courage to take responsibility for her disease.