In a short career largely dominated with genre films — from Final Destination 3 to this past summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — Mary Elizabeth Winstead always has exuded a certain something. But nothing that ever suggested the level of performance she delivers in Smashed.
In that case, it was Michael Keaton; here, it’s Winstead. The movie would collapse without her.
Her Kate would appear to live a cute, carefree life. She’s devoted to teaching children during the day, and partying with her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul, TV’s Breaking Bad), at night. The thread connecting those halves is liquid — sometimes gulped surreptitiously from a flask.
The prologue alone makes it clear that alcohol has begun to tighten its grip on her. Before the title has a chance to appear onscreen, Kate vomits in class, smokes crack for the first time, and loses their car. Bladder control becomes an issue, too.
Winstead plays Kate with a lack of vanity, as her perpetually drunk person does not make hygiene a priority. She appears homely, with unwashed hair and blemishes; it’s not until her character embraces sobriety that her almond eyes show any sparkle.
Taking those steps, however, grants Smashed its conflict. Admitting she’s an alcoholic is first done so with an offhanded awkwardness, as if she’s just saying them to appease the room. Once the words sink in — and we see the shock register — Kate walks a delicate balance between committing to staying dry and the commitment she’s made to Charlie. While supporting her decision, he’s not ready to make the same leap.
Paul does fine in this underwritten role. Actually, most of the cast does — from Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as Kate’s sponsor to Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman in a part that is very un-Ron Swanson — but they register as extended cameos rather than fleshed-out characters.
Marking the sophomore effort for writer/director James Ponsoldt (whose 2006 debut, Off the Black, also dealt with alcoholism), Smashed stands tallest as a showcase for Winstead. She’s been the cheerleader in Grindhouse, the girlfriend of Scott Pilgrim, the daughter in Live Free or Die Hard, the scream queen on Black Christmas, the heroine of The Thing, and now — finally — an actress. —Rod Lott