2012, James Ponsoldt
Who knew Mary Elizabeth Winstead had this in her? After years of getting her checks with unimpressive roles in films like Live Free or Die Hard and The Thing, the young actress is finally given a role with meat in James Ponsoldt’s alcoholism drama Smashed and she absolutely knocks it out of the park. Playing an alcoholic attempting to get sober while her husband (Aaron Paul) remains constantly buried under the influence, Winstead gives one of the most convincing portrayals of addiction seen in years. At times luminous, frustrating and incredibly heartbreaking, she captures the essence of her character’s struggle and never for a moment ceases to be authentic in her depiction.
Portraying a believable drunk is a heavy task that even some of the greatest actors have failed at over the years, but Winstead handles her work without even the briefest moment of artifice or self-awareness. She is the anchor that Smashed is built around and is essential to the success of the picture overall. While Winstead commands every moment of this one, she’s also aided by a strong supporting cast who all deliver fine work.
As her enabling husband, Aaron Paul brings the kind of emotional openness that he’s perfected through his years on Breaking Bad. In his later scenes you’re really able to care for and sympathize with this man, despite him being deplorable for the large majority of the picture. Playing the Vice Principal at the elementary school where Winstead’s character teaches, Nick Offerman is the farthest thing from his Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson and he treads an effective line between heartfelt, harmless and creepy. Offerman is just one part of a cast that is able to work efficiently in areas of hard drama and very dark comedy, allowing Smashed to be as wickedly funny as it is emotionally draining.
It’s no surprise Ponsoldt’s drama first screened at Sundance in 2012, as its character-driven narrative and minimal approach is exactly what you’d expect for something out of the festival. The low-key mindset is prime to maximize the intimacy of this character study, keeping things focused on character as opposed to worrying about any kind of sluggish and inspiring road to redemption. Smashed keeps authenticity front and center, making sure at all times that this is a natural and honest depiction rather than anything weighed down by Hollywood sentimentality. It’s interesting having this come out in a year with something like the Robert Zemeckis film Flight, which takes on a conventionally Hollywood, cliched look at addiction that (while featuring a tremendous performance from Denzel Washington) reeks of staging and contrivance.
Smashed is the counterpoint, something made on a much smaller budget without all of the subplots and need for a big message, instead allowing it to focus on just bringing a stark, authentic depiction of addiction to the screen and it’s all the better for it. This film is deceptive in its simplicity, made in the independent circumstance and done with so much more heart and genuine honesty behind it. That simplicity allows for a far greater intimacy, grounding it with these characters rather than any kind of a forced narrative and therefore allowing for something incredibly effective. Smashed is too small of a drama to be anything truly significant, but rather it’s a keenly observed character study that sets a pedestal for its star to deliver one of the most impressive performances of the year.
Aaron Paul speaks onstage during Deadline Hollywood’s The Contenders on 11/10/2012 in Los Angeles, California.