Sundance 2012: 'Smashed' is a booze film with a dry wit
Movies about addiction tend to be heavy dramatic affairs, with stakes raised high and lives brought low.
But “Smashed,” a new film about a hard-drinking young woman who decides to get sober after one too many late nights, tries a different approach: It mixes in lightness with the seriousness.
"A lot of movies about addiction just sort of dwell in miserabilism, and we didn’t want to do that,” said James Ponsoldt, the film’s director and co-writer. “We wanted it to be something you could relate to, that young people can relate to.”
PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance
The movie premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, where the relatability was on full display.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary school teacher with a full life — she’s enthusiastic in front of a classroom and even more energetic in her nightlife, which consists mainly of drinking at neighborhood bars with husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) and his buddies. Kate also isn’t averse to nips at other times — swigging a beer in the shower, sipping from a flask as she drives to work.
But after a series of marathon drinking sessions leads to her waking up in strange places, such as near the dried-up banks of the L.A. River (the Southland-set film makes ample use of Eastside Los Angeles locations) Kate decides to get sober. She takes the advice of a colleague (Nick Offerman) who brings her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where she meets a sponsor, the wise but darkly comic Jenny (Octavia Spencer). Her new-found sobriety, however, drives a wedge between Kate and Charlie, who hasn’t given up booze.
Meanwhile, a misunderstanding at school while Kate is still drinking — she's having hangover-induced vomiting, but the students think their teacher is pregnant, and she goes with it — brings the potential for comedic misunderstanding. The movie is dry in more ways than one.
“What struck me when I first read the script was that it’s not a feel-bad film even though it deals with alcoholism,” Winstead said. “There’s no big intervention scene, and I even had a good time shooting some of the drunk scenes — they’re serious moments but it’s also a chance to show the good times this couple had together.”
Winstead said that before making “Smashed,” which is seeking U.S. distribution, she specifically avoided watching other films about addiction, such as “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Requiem for a Dream,” hoping not to be influenced by their tone.
Paul, who is associated with a rather different kind of addiction as meth dealer Jesse Pinkman in the cable series “Breaking Bad,” believes that by not overdoing the melodrama “Smashed” gives audiences a stake in the outcome.
"It’s a tragic love story and a marriage that’s so unhealthy for both of them, but you're rooting for their relationship,” he said. Paul said that he took inspiration from a relationship he had in real life with a woman who was always the “life of the party,” leading to good times but also, he said, an inability to relate emotionally.
A 33-year-old Georgia native who previously directed the 2006 Sundance drama "Off the Black," Ponsoldt got the idea for “Smashed” when a longtime friend, comedian Susan Burke, began recounting stories of her alcoholic nights and subsequent sobriety. The two wound up co-writing a script that they further researched by attending AA meetings. Sometimes they brought Winstead with them.
“When I first started going to the meetings, I was surprised by how much honesty and how much knowing comedy was there,” Ponsoldt said. “I wanted to make a movie that captured that and even felt that way as we were shooting it.”
On the Los Angeles set of the film in October, some of that lightheartedness was in evidence as Spencer ad-libbed a scene about how she replaced her alcohol addiction with food compulsions, in each take coming up with new items such as peanut butter, nacho cheese and chocolate cake on the spot, prompting laughs from some in the crew.
There was also levity between takes. Offerman, known for his offbeat comedic role as Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” bantered with Spencer. “I get to play somewhat different than who I usually am," Spencer said as she dined with her costars during a late-afternoon lunch break. "She plays docile and white,” Offerman wryly volleyed back to a reporter.
Though Ponsoldt said he didn’t know if audiences had an appetite for a film about addiction, even a somewhat buoyant one, he said he felt it was the best way to handle these themes.
“It’s a simple, honest story,” he said. “These two kids are in love with each other but they’re also in love with drinking.”
-- Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah
Photo: A scene from "Smashed" with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul. Credit: Oana Marian