Were there a 10-step program for filmmakers eager to make another film about alcoholism, the very first step should and must be to view previous such films to keep from repeating the same mistakes and, in one instance, understanding how such a movie might work.
Take “Smashed.” Did director James Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke even bother to look at Blake Edwards’ “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962)? I doubt it. Too bad because at bottom the new writers tell the same story.
Edwards’ skilled narrative understands that a movie can’t start off being “about” alcoholism. His is, rather, the story of a two people who meet, fall in love and get happily married with wine and roses filling their lives.
Then the wine becomes a little too much. But the movie doesn’t discover its alcoholism theme until you know the people and care about their happiness and marriage.
“Smashed” starts out as the title indicates it will. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) are a married Los Angeles couple that lives in fumes of alcohol. They can barely mumble to one another and walk in halting stumbles that reflect a constant battle between their bodies and gravity.
Which is of her getting out of bed, hung-over. She is such a drunk that she wets the bed, slugs down a beer while showering, then takes a few nips before going to work as a first-grade teacher.
She then vomits in the classroom and lies about her condition to the kids. Later she goes off with a homeless crackhead only to wake up in a deserted lot somewhere near skid row, urinates on the floor of a convenience store and finally steals a bottle of cheap wine.
This is no functioning alcoholic but a woman who spends no waking moment completely sober.
Look, a filmmaker can tell any story he wants, but a more interesting drama with nuances and subtleties would be about a couple who drinks too much and what happens when one goes AA but the other continues to drink?
Even if one isn’t familiar with the history of those situations, the film doesn’t show you what happens but rather announces it ahead of time in speeches by her AA sponsor (Octavia Spencer) and the school’s vice principal (Nick Offerman), who is also AA.
Indeed the whole movie is little more than an (unconvincing) infomercial for AA with few dramatic developments, sketchy stereotypical characters and continual speeches.
The film is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” (1945). The great critic James Agee, himself an extremely heavy drinker, said in his review of that film, “I see nothing in it that is new, sharply individual, or strongly creative.
“It is, rather, a skillful restatement, satisfying and easy to overrate in a time of general dereliction and fatuousness, of some sound basic commonplaces.”
“Smashed” is not even that skillful. It drags the couple (and viewer) off to Lake Arrowhead for a meeting with the heroine’s mother (Mary Kay Place). This scene serves no purpose other than baldly explaining the possible source of the young woman’s drinking.
Beyond the sheer nastiness of such finger-pointing — “I drank plenty when I was pregnant with Kate,” momma declares — all this makes things so, so easy for the viewer. And for Kate. It’s mom’s fault!
Another situation is even more dubious, when Kate loses her job for admitting her alcoholism to the school principal (Megan Mullally).
California employment laws involving alcoholism and the workplace are very strict. Discharging an employee in the midst of a voluntary rehabilitation program could well leave a school district liable to a wrongful termination suit.
This is a minor dramatic problem to be sure but does underscore how little research seems to have gone into the screenplay.
The painfully thin story — a mere 81 minute — makes its characters all types, fails to examine them in any manner beyond their addiction and wraps things up in a thoroughly unconvincing fashion.
About all that sustains the film is a smart performance from Winstead that reaches beyond the poorly constructed character to create a troubled woman with a split personality caused by her drinking.
Otherwise I must again quote Agee’s review of “The Lost Weekend” as it applies to this film.
He wrote: “There is very little appreciation, for instance, of the many and subtle moods possible in drunkenness; almost no registration of the workings of the several minds inside a drinker’s brain; hardly a trace of the narcissism and self-deceit which are so indispensable or the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable…”
Instead “Smashed” blames mom and the husband and even encourages its heroine to wallow in self-pity, which is where it leaves her. I suspect she’ll drink again.
Opens: October 12, 2012 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Super Crispy Entertainment presents a Jonathan Schwartz/Andrea Sperling production
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Kyle Gallner, Mackenzie Davis, Bree Turner, Mary Kay Place, Octavia Spencer
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke
Producers: Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling, Jennifer Cochis
Executive producers: Audrey Wilf, Zygi Wilf
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Linda Sena
Music: Eric D Johnson, Andy Cabic
Costume designer: Diaz Jacobs
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
R rating, 81 minutes