James Bond made his triumphant return today, just in time for the franchise's 50th anniversary. It's all over the news, the title song (which is amazing, by the way) has already racked up some impressive radio play, and the critics are raving. Skyfall is quite understandably the only wide release out this weekend, but there's an arthouse film that I wanted to address first, particularly because it means responding to another film in multiplexes right now. When I saw the trailer for Smashed, I knew I'd have to give the film a watch. Not only did it look like a nice little film, but I was very intrigued by the notion of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a dramatic Oscar-bait role. Winstead, after all, is a very talented young actress who has yet to really catch her big break. In spite of her bad luck (the unfair commercial thrashing of Scott Pilgrim) and bad career moves (The Thing prequel/remake, and Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), I can't help cheering her on.
Fortunately, Winstead acquits herself very well as the anchor of a solid character drama. She stars as Kate Hannah, a young woman with a chronic alcohol problem who finally hits rock bottom and decides to sober up. If you've been paying attention to the multiplexes recently, you might be forgiven for thinking that sounds a lot like the premise of Flight, but without any of the airplane crashes, legal drama, or all-star cast. Allow me to explain precisely how -- despite the downgrade in marquee names and the omission of an awesome special effects centerpiece -- Smashed succeeds in all the ways that Flight failed.
First of all, it's worth conceding that Flight is about an airline pilot and Smashed is about a grade school teacher. Given their professions, neither of these people have any business being drunk or hung over on the job. That said, at least Kate's students aren't as likely to be killed or seriously injured as a result. Furthermore, it's plainly obvious that Kate cares a great deal about her students, far more than Whip Whitman seemed to care about his passengers (save only for the flight crew).
Secondly, on a similar note, Kate isn't nearly as dangerous when drunk. We see early on that she does have some limits and morals, even if she can occasionally be persuaded to break them with enough alcohol. She isn't an angry drunk, nor is she seemingly bent on her own destruction the way Whip was. Kate starts out as nothing more than a wild partier with no self-control who's too stupid to know any better. That makes her a lot easier to like, or at least more difficult to hate.
Thirdly, Kate is very sincere about her attempt to sober up. She admits early on that she has a problem, she accepts the help she's granted, she asks for help when necessary, and she does make an admirable effort at staying on the wagon in spite of all the boozing that goes on around her. Compare that to Flight, in which the main character could be depended on to stubbornly make the wrong decision every single time, loudly denying his addiction the whole way.
Fourthly, I will concede that Kate does lapse eventually. However, she only lapses once, as opposed to the multiple indulgences seen in Flight. Even better, this lapse doesn't completely reset Kate's character development the way Whip's character arc got sent back to square one every fifteen minutes. If anything, Kate's lapse is a huge turning point in her development as a character, showing just how far the character's sunk and how much she's been repressing for the sake of straightening out her life. It's a huge scene.
Fifthly, Kate doesn't spend the entire film denying personal responsibility the way Whip does. Yes, she does lie about being pregnant at the start of the film (to explain her nausea away as morning sickness, you see), but she gradually finds the strength to tell the truth and take responsibility as the film continues. Compare that to Flight, which aggressively delayed a similar redemptive arc until finally cramming it into the last five minutes of the movie.
Finally, unlike Flight, Smashed goes into great detail about what drives our main character to drink. We see that Kate was raised by a single mother, an awful human being who stubbornly drinks to excess. We also see that all of Kate's friends -- including her husband, Charlie, played by Aaron Paul -- are rampant partiers. As such, it's made clear that Kate was never placed in a situation where she could have fun without getting plastered. It's all she knows.
Therefore, the central conflict of this film isn't really "Kate vs. alcoholism," it's "Kate vs. her past." The movie is all about watching Kate struggle with her lifestyle and her inner demons. Hell, Kate's alcoholism has become such a deep-rooted part of her life that even the positive things about it have become damaged, probably beyond repair. It's entirely possible that Kate's only shot at a sober life is to make a clean break and start over fresh, though that's of course easier said than done. Change on that scale is never easy, and it makes for some great character drama.
In Flight, the protagonist was so reckless and stupid that everyone else kept asking what the fuck was wrong with him. In Smashed, the characters are all getting hammered around the clock and our protagonist is the first one who wakes up to the fact. Not only does the latter scenario make for better drama, but it makes for a more sympathetic main character as well.
Even better, Smashed uses this conflict to make some very interesting statements about sobriety vs. intoxication. Specifically, that neither of them are going to grant immediate happiness. There's no way to drown sorrows in liquor, but foreswearing the grape and barley won't make problems magically disappear, either. All worthwhile things in life require moderation, not to mention some measure of compromise, sacrifice, and sometimes even pain.
My point is this: Smashed and Flight are both movies about similar subject matter, and Smashed is without question the superior film in terms of theme. Yet Smashed will come and go, ignored by critics and mainstream audiences, while Flight already has Oscar buzz and a $32.6 million opening weekend. Fucking Hollywood.
All comparisons aside, I hope it's clear by now that Smashed is a very good film in its own right. A great deal of that has to do with the actors, none more so than Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She turns in a powerful performance in this film, delivered with minimal glamor and a very impressive emotional range. The character, her problems, and her reactions to those problems all feel wonderfully authentic, which is really the most you can ask from a character drama.
Moving on to the other cast members, we've got Aaron Paul. He plays Charlie as a man who deeply loves his wife and has a sincere desire to help adapt to the needs of her new lifestyle, but doesn't have the ability to do so. This guy can't not be drunk, so Charlie and Kate go from implicitly driving each other crazy to screaming at each other in blind rage. Of course, it doesn't help that Kate was always the breadwinner of the two: We eventually learn that Charlie was so spoiled by his rich parents that he can afford to sit around all day, doing the least possible amount of work on some music news site. It's a job, by the way, that he mostly uses as an excuse to party with whatever rock bands are coming through.
That's not to say Charlie is an awful human being, just that he's beyond hope. Their marriage can never work so long as Kate remains sober, but the two of them love each other so much that cutting Charlie loose is one of the hardest things that Kate has to do. Additionally, Charlie has absolutely no idea how much he needs his wife until it's too late.
Then there's Megan Mullally, who appears as the principal of Kate's school. Principal Barnes is a woman who couldn't conceive, despite her best efforts, so she reacts to Kate's pregnancy lie with overwhelming glee. Her attempts to coach Kate through pregnancy are executed in such a way that Barnes pretty much acts as the comic relief of the film. Though comic relief is certainly needed and warranted in such a heavy drama, this particular comic relief still comes with a huge Sword of Damocles hanging over it. Every moment of comedy in this storyline comes tainted with guilt, because it only shows Kate getting buried deeper and deeper under her lies.
The supporting cast also includes Mary Kay Place, who appears just long enough to show the audience why Kate was estranged from her drunkard mother to begin with. Bree Turner (an honorary Portlander, I feel compelled to add) also has a very brief role, leading Kate to one of the most scary and bizarre moments in our protagonist's drunken life. In fact, that moment is one of the main catalysts which lead Kate to start cleaning up her act.
But then we have the wild cards in the cast. One of them is Dave Davies (Nick Offerman), an assistant principal who introduces Kate to an AA group. The other is Jenny (Octavia Spencer), who agrees to be Kate's sponsor. These characters are played about as well as could be expected, and they have some occasional funny moments.
However, these characters are scarcely vital to the plot in any great way. Dave provides Kate with a foot in the door, and Jenny is there for occasional moral support, but that's it. The characters talk a lot, but they seldom do anything of importance. In fact, the film quite visibly struggled to find ways of keeping these characters involved, and occasionally resorted to some drastic measures. A prime example is Dave's failed relationship with Kate, an entirely inconsequential story thread that did way more harm than good to the characters and to the overall film.
Moving on to the technical aspects, the film was pretty much entirely shot with a handheld camera. The approach was very hit-and-miss. Though it mostly succeeded at lending the film an authentic feel devoid of Hollywood glamour (again, compare with Flight), some shots of the film looked terribly amateurish. I could swear that in one shot, it looked like a character was pushing the camera out of his way.
All told, I'd say that Smashed is a textbook example of how to make a film about alcoholism and make it well. It's a film that doesn't decry alcohol as evil or praise sobriety as the one true path to happiness, but addresses the pros, cons, and nuances of both. Additionally, the film heavily explores the inner demons and dilemmas of its protagonist, and cast a lead actor who was capable of handling such a dynamic character. The result is a neat little slice-of-life film that feels wonderfully authentic and emotionally honest.
I can absolutely recommend seeking this film out. Additionally, if you have the choice of seeing either this or Flight, I urge you to please do yourself a favor and make the right choice.