It is commonly accepted that if you’re sober and around those who are heavenly intoxicated, things may not be as funny and likely not entertaining. It would be laughing at, rather than laughing with, and usually paired with the need to either remove oneself from the situation entirely, or just get hammered. For, if you stick around long enough, it just gets strange and uncomfortable.
That is the prevailing feeling you will get while watching Smashed, an intimate portrait of a young married couple who simply can’t resist the drink. After yet another night of excessive liberation, Kate wakes up still inebriated, grabs a beer for the shower, drives to work, takes a swig, and proceeds to teach her elementary school class.
The result of her over-exuberance in front of the children, like most of the film, is only momentarily funny before becoming instantly and evermore unsettling. It is one in a series of pitiful and dangerous situations Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself in that force her to confront her problem, and try and sober up.
The trouble is that her husband Charlie (Aaron Paul – Jesse on Breaking Bad) is also an alcoholic, except that his binges don’t find him waking up in an alley or underpass. He is supportive of her to a degree, but more interested in maintaining their lifestyle than changing it. With money coming in from his parents and opportunity to keep drinking, partying, and playing video game, Charlie doesn’t need to change.
Kate though, with a family history of alcoholism, and a job in jeopardy, seeks counseling, finding guidance in her socially awkward yet earnest coworker Mr. Davies (Nick Offerman), and later her sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer). As she attempts to live life without drinking, she starts to see what we as the audience were seeing for some time: destructive behavior that goes well beyond cute and rambunctious.
Both Winstead and Paul give honest and layered performances of a flawed couple trying to escape their detrimental habits, looking to bridge the gap between a drunken past and a clean future. Admittedly it is hard to look at Paul and not think of Jesse, and while he isn’t exactly playing a character that different, he does it superbly.
In an attempt of this nature, breaking free from something clearly bad, there are sacrifices and heartbreak, and not a moment of the movie goes by where the perils of reality aren’t creeping in. That reality simply says that either both halves of the couple drink or neither of them does. Along the way, someone is going to have to confront the ignorance and complacency of the past and deal with the consequences of the future.
There is nothing beautiful about the intoxicated. The two are dirty and sweaty, loud and obnoxious, and even felonious. Kate skirts a duality: she is at times the dependent woman consumed by alcohol, and the sober adult, dealing with the problems in life that alcohol helps you ignore. We the audience are voyeurs to this struggle, as it is an uncomfortable look through a window at a couple that is likely representative of far too many. For Kate, and others too perhaps, it is simply a long, cold, harsh look into a mirror.