Monday 23 October 2017

Smashing sensations

Film Review: Smashed. Director: James Ponsoldt Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Aaron Paul

Paul Whitington

I have noticed that in American films, alcoholism is generally portrayed as a spectacular, all-consuming ailment that plays out like a domestic horror film.

In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicholas Cage lived in a fridge full of vodka and rolled his eyes to heaven as he slowly drowned in a raging sea of alcohol.

Ray Milland pulled at his face and howled into the camera for almost the entire duration of The Lost Weekend because he couldn't get any booze.

The reality, of course, is usually much more insidious and gradual, but Smashed opts for the usual apocalyptic approach, to its ultimate detriment.

However, it does have a winning sense of humour, and some perceptive things to say about the nature of addiction.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Kate Hannah, a Los Angeles junior school teacher whose drinking is beginning to interfere with her work. She's married to Charlie (Aaron Paul), a rich kid who doesn't have to work at all and enables Kate's binge drinking because it so neatly elides with his own.

They are happy, in so far as it goes, but hooch is the glue that holds the couple together and, when Kate begins to pull her self together, her marriage, paradoxically, starts to suffer.

Kate begins to suspect she may have a problem when she turns up in class after a particularly rough night out and throws up in full view of her class.

When one of the kids asks her if she's pregnant, she decides on the spur of the moment to go along with it, and ends up enduring the congratulations of the school's brittle principal (Megan Mullally), and even a bogus baby shower.

But the strain of keeping up her fake pregnancy only makes things worse, and soon Kate is on the verge of a total breakdown.

She finds an unexpected ally in the school's deputy principal, Dave Davies (Nick Offerman), who recognises her symptoms because he was once a chronic alcoholic himself. Dave is nine years sober, and asks Kate to attend an AA meeting. There she finds a warmhearted sponsor, but Kate's attempts to pull herself together go down badly at home.

Nicely shot and suffused in woozy Californian sunshine, Smashed is a sincere attempt to examine addiction and how it can be overcome, and the insidiousness of enabling relationships.

It's a bit too pretty for its own good at times: Kate smokes crack, drinks neat vodka day and night, and wakes up by the side of the road, but still looks splendid.

But Smashed is saved from descending into melodrama by some fine performances, especially from Winstead and Offerman, and by a constant undercurrent of salty, knowing humour.

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