Kate Hannah (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is what's known as a "functioning alcoholic." She and her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) habitually drink themselves into a stupor every night, but as long as she manages to drag herself into work on time – after waking herself up with a few shots – she feels that her problem is under control. Smashed is a film about Kate's gradual loss of control, and her decision to finally confront the lifestyle that's gradually destroying her. The breaking point is reached when a drunken night ends with Kate smoking crack and blacking out, before waking up the next morning in the middle of nowhere. She returns home with a fresh desire to straighten herself out, but how can she do so when she is surrounded by booze and boozers?
Smashed is good at showing how recovering alcoholics need to escape damaging environments in order to overcome their dependency. Kate and Charlie's drink-fuelled nights have bonded them together throughout their marriage, but her withdrawal from that scene immediately puts a strain on their relationship. Now sober, Kate finds herself less able to relate to the man she married, and she begins making new friends, through her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which push Charlie even further out of the equation. The question that Kate will ultimately have to ask herself in Smashed is whether a clean break with Charlie will be necessary in order to fully commit to a life without drink.
Smashed is the second feature for director James Ponsoldt, whose debut Off the Black also dealt with an alcoholic protagonist. He co-wrote the film with Susan Burke, who drew inspiration from her own battle with drink in her early 20s, but although Burke is a stand-up comic, her writing here is earnest rather than comedic. In fact, the scenes in which Burke attempts to inject a little humour often result in the film's weakest moments, with the fake pregnancy subplot being by far its most jarring misstep. This turn of events comes about when Kate inexplicably claims to be pregnant (rather than simply unwell) in order to excuse the hungover vomiting witnessed by her young students, a lie that quickly gathers momentum among her colleagues. While this narrative strand conveys the build-up of lies that an addict often concocts to hide her secret, but it feels out of place here.
The film is at its best when it creates an intimate focus on Kate and allows Mary Elizabeth Winstead the time and space to do some very impressive work. This is a strong, sincere performance from the actress, who convincingly walks the fine line between a happy, sociable drunk and a reckless, desperate one. The two most powerful moments in the film come in Kate's AA meetings, where she delivers her heartfelt monologues with the air of someone determined to turn a corner but unsure if she'll have the strength to do so. Smashed is very much Winstead's show, but it feels like it should be a two-hander. As Charlie, Aaron Paul is fine with the material he's given, but he isn't given much to do with his limited characterisation. He's generally just a drunken presence loitering on the edge of scenes, and by the time he starts to snap into focus towards the end it's too late for us to feel the real sense of loss which we should feel in this breakdown of this marriage.
Ultimately, what hurts Smashed is the sense that it all feels so rushed. The film runs for a shade over 80 minutes and that tight construction leaves much of it feeling oddly truncated. Nick Offerman's character transitions, from attentive colleague to creepily over-attentive pervert and back again, come out of nowhere; Octavia Spencer only has a few lines; Mary Kay Place feels like she could have played a more telling role as Kate's heavy-drinking mother. Beefing up these supporting players and creating more tangible, convincing relationships could have helped bring Smashed up to the level of its sterling lead performance. As it is, this feels like a film that's racing through the 12 steps with indecent haste.