Though there's no dearth of films about alcoholism and recovery, Smashed reeled me back not to Barfly or Days of Wine and Roses, but to Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry's 1947 modernist novel. Let me explain: Lowry's difficult and highly allusive book follows a heavy-drinking British consul in small-town Mexico, and it contains some of the most grindingly brutal depictions of alcoholism I've read. In his fervent commitment to self-destruction, the narrator leaves his job, loses his wife, hears voices and hallucinates, blacks out repeatedly and lurches through crippling hangovers. It made me seriously consider temperance.
James Ponsoldt's affecting Smashed is not a film version of Under the Volcano—far from it. It's a smaller, funnier and far more precise story, about what happens to a young, hard-drinking woman who decides to get off the bottle. But just as Lowry's knotty prose leaves the reader wobbly-kneed and disoriented, Smashed—in its own quiet way and with its shaky handheld camera work—also dizzies. As the movie opens, we learn that elementary schoolteacher Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in sensible white sneakers and an inexplicable succession of frumpy flowered dresses) wet the bed the night before. In the next 10 minutes, she swigs a beer during her morning shower, gulps from a flask in the car before work, vomits in her classroom of first-graders, smokes crack with a stranger and wakes up alone and disheveled on a Los Angeles street. It's little surprise the school's assistant principal (an appropriately bumbling Nick Offerman), himself nine years sober, recruits Kate for Alcoholics Anonymous and plays an encouraging wingman as she scopes out a sponsor (a wry Octavia Spencer).
Pondsoldt is not so concerned with novelty of plot, but he offers fair glimpses of the jolly-fun life Kate and husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) once led, filled with besotted bike rides, woozy croquet games and rapturous karaoke sessions. But as Kate gets sober and wistful pop tunes lilt over a montage of her sipping tea as Charlie guzzles wine, she predictably realizes that lots of unresolved issues squirm unhappily beneath the blur of booze. Despite the equally predictable relapse, Smashed doesn't take the easy way out. Balancing earnest performances with unflinching material, it never pretends sobriety is all frivolity and ease—so cheers to that. R.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Smashed opens Friday at Fox Tower.