'W e'll just be wine-with-dinner people," is how Charlie and Kate Hannah, the Los Angeles couple played by Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed, agree to recalibrate their drinking habits, their lives.
The problem is that drinking has become their lives. For Kate, a teacher in public school, it's especially bad: She loses her temper with a store clerk who won't sell her beer after hours, then loses control of her bladder on the bodega floor. And when, reeling from a mighty hangover, she pukes in front of her first graders, one of the more precocious kids asks if she is pregnant. Her mommy had morning sickness, too.
Instead of ignoring the girl, Kate confirms that yes, she is expecting. The lie grows bigger and bigger from there.
Inevitably, addiction movies - whether they're about alcoholics or drug or sex addicts - trace a common arc. The characters pass through the stages of use and abuse, denial and (sometimes) acknowledgment, alienating friends and family along the way. From Lost Weekend to Leaving Las Vegas to Shame, the damage is serious, and the ending not always pretty.
Smashed, directed and cowritten by James Ponsoldt (he collaborated on the script with Susan Burke), can't help but go to some of the same places - and emotional spaces. But this sharp, spirited indie is worth seeing for its specificity of time and place (not the usual L.A.), its performances, and its surprising, and welcome, humor. Even in the shoddiest and most hurtful of circumstances, it's possible, and necessary, to laugh.
Paul, who stars as Jesse Pinkman on AMC's breathtakingly accomplished Breaking Bad, isn't stretching much - it's not a long hike from scruffy meth head to scruffy drunk. But he gives Charlie a reckless, callow charm. You can see what Kate saw in him - in addition to having a booze buddy around.
But Smashed belongs to Winstead. Kate wakes at dawn in a vacant lot after a night of binge drinking and crack-smoking, the homeless bobbing like ghosts around her - her hazy despair slowly changing to a realization that she needs to find help, or else, and that maybe living with an enabler isn't such a good idea.
There's a painfully awkward scene with Kate and a school colleague (Nick Offerman) who invites her to try AA and then tries to hit on her - with dialogue straight out of a porn film. It's a bogglingly offensive exchange, and Kate's response is full of revulsion, but also compassion. The actress brings enormous authenticity, heart, and instincts to the role.
Kate does go to AA, she finds a sponsor (Octavia Spencer), she tries to patch things up with her mother (a Bloody Mary-ed Mary Kay Place), and she and Charlie struggle to stay together. But a lot of things break in Smashed - including hearts.