May 09, 2014

SMASHED Beautifully Navigates The Pitfalls Of Sobriety and Self-Improvement

"Love is the easy part, did you know that?  It's the rest of this shit that's hard."
I was fairly blown away by director James Ponsoldt's newest film, The Spectacular Now, particularly the smart and subtle ways the film dealt with the idea of alcoholism.  Sutter Keely has an indisputable problem with substance abuse, but it's never played as melodrama - his drinking causes him to make some unfortunate choices, but it isn't ruining his life just yet.  Ponsoldt's deft touch left me curious to check out his previous film Smashed, another drinker's tale whose trailer I could vaguely recall having watched once upon a time.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, a hard-partying elementary school teacher who's beginning to suspect that her drinking might be a serious problem.  More often than not these stories feature a main character whose biggest hurdle is simply admitting that they have a problem, but Ponsoldt eschews this familiar formula in favor of a protagonist who is extremely self aware.  Kate lies to her students and her principal, excusing an unfortunate instance of hangover vomiting as a symptom of pregnancy, and then soon finds herself chilling under a highway overpass and smoking crack with a stranger, all before the film's title card comes on screen.  These incidents set the stage for Kate's realization that it's time to quit drinking, although she has no idea just how difficult that course of action will ultimately prove.

Winstead gives a luminous performance in this fascinating character study, a story which revels in the daily grind of self-improvement as Kate attempts to get her shit together.  It ain't easy.  Smashed demonstrates that overcoming alcoholism is not as easy as simply deciding to stop drinking.  The real challenge lies in the follow through, and sometimes even if you make all the right choices, life can still throw you a curveball that brings everything crashing down around you.  Alcoholism is a disease after all, one whose only known vaccine is pure willpower and that's kind of insane when you think about it.  The only way to overcome a drinking problem is to decide to get better and then reinforce that decision every single day.  Forever.  It's fairly remarkable.  I drink just about every day because I love the taste of beer and whiskey and while I've certainly had some pretty wild nights, I've never considered my drinking to be a real problem.  I consider myself supremely lucky that I'm able to drink in moderation (yes I'm aware I just qualified daily alcohol consumption as "moderation") without it escalating to the point of negatively impacting my job or my relationships.  When I tell people about my decision to watch a movie every day, they're often impressed with that level of commitment, but that's nothing compared to someone who can convince themselves every hour, every minute to not take a drink even though all the cells in their body might be screaming out in desperation for a single sip of their preferred spirit.  Would I have that kind of willpower?  If I'm lucky, I'll never find out.

Kate's husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) supports her efforts in theory but makes no effort to curtail his own heavy alcohol consumption.  In fact, it soon becomes clear that he finds the whole idea of AA to be kind of bullshit and he resents that it seems to be pulling Kate away from him.  It's clear that a major component of their relationship is their mutual tendency to seriously cut loose, and if anything it seems clear that Kate could probably drink Charlie under the table.  But throughout their relationship, they've always operated on the same wavelength.  So when Kate suddenly changes gears, Charlie has trouble seeing it as anything other than alienating.  He doesn't view his own drinking as a problem and therefore likely considers Kate's newfound sobriety to be some kind of phase or experiment as opposed to legitimate self-improvement.  He just wants his fun-loving wife back.  Kate eventually relapses and hits the bottle HARD and it's in this moment of role reversal that Charlie truly sees just how scary and out of control Kate can truly be while under the influence.

As one half of a young married couple, it's impossible to watch the rift that forms in Kate and Charlie's relationship without considering my own.  If one of us decided to make a life-altering change in our lives then I'm sure the other would be extremely supportive, but at what point does that change start to tip the scales and become untenable?  Before we got married, Jamie and I had a conversation about the concept of divorce, which seemed like a fairly practical consideration.  If we were to get married and then years later found that we had simply evolved in different directions and were no longer happy together, would divorce be an option?  While our generation is certainly much more comfortable with the concept than those of the past, both of our parents remain together (respectively) and to be honest the whole idea of divorce doesn't quite sit well with me, like it's an admission of failure.  If you had just worked harder and made better choices, maybe you'd still be together.  At the same time, it seems absurd not to acknowledge that people and circumstances change over time, and while we might be happily married and want the same things at 30, the same simply might not be true at 40 or 50.  Commitment is admirable to be sure, but at that theoretical point what is there to be gained by digging into discontent and stubbornly refusing to admit the truth to each other and/or ourselves?  Obviously I hope that day never comes, but to dismiss it as an impossibility would be foolish.

Smashed clocks in at 81 minutes, and while the movie is punctuated by strong performances from Winstead, Paul, Nick Offerman and Octavia Spencer, that short running time does makes the story feel a bit slight.  But the film really serves as a snapshot, a glimpse into the nitty gritty and the rollercoaster of emotion that comes with deciding to walk a different path.  Making the decision can be hard, but what's harder still is sticking to that path and not veering off into the wilderness when things get tough.  The story doesn't really have a resolution per se, but that feels fitting since neither does sobriety.

You never really reach a destination, you simply keep moving forward one day at a time.  If you're lucky, you'll have someone by your side every step of the way.


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Title: Smashed
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, Meghan Mullally, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner, Bree Turner
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD