The title "Smashed" refers not so much to the nearly perpetual state of inebriation that a young husband and wife put themselves in but rather to the way the wife finds her existence truly shattered when she tries to get sober.
Staying at least slightly drunk all the time is easy, as Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character knows well. It's a blissfully ignorant existence, one big party. But once you stop drinking, the reality you've shoved aside returns with a vengeance.
This battle with the bottle (and with bottled-up demons) is a frequent film topic, and "Smashed" deserves some credit for mostly avoiding the sort of histrionics that can be staples of the genre. Instead, director James Ponsoldt's film, from a script he co-wrote with Susan Burke, is understated to a fault. The bottom isn't low enough, the struggle isn't difficult enough, and the characters (especially the supporting ones) don't feel developed enough to provide necessary context for our heroine's journey.
"Smashed" is the rare movie that feels too short, too thin and it ends on an unsatisfying and rather unconvincing note, despite some recognizable, raw moments that preceded it.
Winstead ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," ''Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") gets to show the full range of her abilities, though, in her heaviest dramatic role yet. She stars as Kate Hannah, a first-grade teacher living in the culturally mixed, hipsterish Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park with her slacker writer husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad"). When we first see her, she's waking up to her daily hangover, the edge of which she takes off with a beer in the shower. These first scenes are an early indication of the kind of roving, hand-held camerawork that will pervade throughout, a needless means of further magnifying an obvious sense of instability.
Still a mess while teaching class - but functioning charismatically from her buzz - Kate suddenly vomits in front of her astonished students and tells a hasty lie to cover it up. Her nerdy, nosy principal (Megan Mullally) feels sympathy for her but the vice principal, Dave (Nick Offerman), recognizes in Kate the traits of a fellow alcoholic.
Nine years sober now, Dave takes Kate under his wing and invites her to the low-key AA meeting he attends. There, she meets the warmly funny woman (Octavia Spencer) who will become her sponsor.
And voila! Kate stops drinking. No withdrawal, no depression. Well, she has one slip, but the next time we see her after that, she's receiving her one-year cake to celebrate her sobriety and pondering the quiet, dry life that (hopefully) awaits her. The obligatory rift develops with her still-raging husband; they fell in love getting hammered together, how could they possibly survive as a couple if only one of them is still drinking? Paul does what he can with an underwritten role: His character is depicted as little more than an immature, hard-partying trust-fund kid, so it's hard to feel emotionally invested in whether he and Kate can make it work.
Similarly, Offerman plays a level-headed, loyal friend, which makes some weirdly inappropriate comments to Kate seem to come out of nowhere, simply for the sake of an awkward laugh. Faring the worst of all in just one scene is Mary Kay Place as Kate's lonely, long-drinking mother, who functions simply as someone to blame for her daughter's genetic predisposition toward alcoholism.
Still, an unadorned Winstead dives headlong into all the highs and lows required of her - she's as much of a wreck happily singing karaoke as she is urinating in the middle of a liquor store. She seems more game than the film itself is in exposing deeper truths.
"Smashed," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use. Running time: 85 minutes. Two stars out of four.