Movie Review: Smashed Understands the Social Nature of an Alcoholic’s Disease

It’s difficult for me to consider a movie like Smashed without consulting my family’s own tortured history with alcoholism.

I harbor no ill will towards alcohol itself. I know it’s possible for some people to enjoy beer or wine or liquor without becoming consumed with the pursuit of the escape that it affords. I realize that going out to happy hour for a few, even more than a few, doesn’t necessarily lead a person to ruin and lose the things that he most values in life.

But that’s not my family’s story, and so I’ll always have an uncomfortable relationship with the drug and with any social gatherings centered on drinking.

I understand what Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) experiences when she quits drinking, and her husband and friends (who continue to drink as much as ever) treat her as though she’s suddenly a bummer to be with and is silently judging them. I’ve had people give me that same puzzled, disappointed look when I order a Coke at a bar. They thought I was more fun-loving than that.

Kate needed badly to quit drinking. Her alcoholism had reached the stage where she’s so badly passed out at the end of every night that she routinely pees in her own bed. She pauses during her morning shower to take swigs of beer. Before she heads into work (as a first-grade teacher) she takes a gulp from a flask in her car. She vomits in front of her students one morning and lies about being pregnant to explain her nausea.

That’s not enough to get her to quit drinking. The next night she stumbles out of a bar and agrees to give a ride home to a strange young woman outside. She ends up smoking crack and wakes up in a vacant lot unsure of where her car is. But even that’s not enough to get her to stop.

“I’ve always drunk a lot. Everybody I know drinks a lot, so I never thought it was a problem,” she says when the vice principal of her school, Dave (Nick Offerman), convinces her to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with him.

The story of Smashed really begins to take shape after Kate enters recovery. Her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) doesn’t completely understand her decision, but accepts it. He continues to drink excessively every night, as the two of them always have. Her alcoholic mother (Mary Kay Place) openly ridicules her for joining AA. Her friends treat her like she’s a drag when she balks at some of the childish behavior in which they indulge (the same sort of behavior her drunk self once delighted in).

All of this feels honest. The movie understands the difficulties that can arise in relationships, especially marriages, when one partner begins to make big changes while the other opts to remain who he always was.

But I was less than fully satisfied with Smashed because of too many other false moments. One awkwardly perverse conversation between Kate and Dave, who develops a crush on her, was meant to play comedically (I think) but came off as merely creepy and fake instead. As did the montage of Charlie and Kate exploring an abandoned Christmas village near her hometown for no particular reason while stereotypical indie-movie light-guitar music plays on the soundtrack. And I found the ending, in which the film cuts off before Kate can answer a question posed by Charlie, irritating in its faux profundity.

Smashed shouldn’t have to resort to cheap tricks like that. Its core story has plenty of heartbreaking truth.