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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Smashed’ takes a sobering look at alcohol addiction

Smashed

(R)

2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Being released in the same seven day period as two other higher-profile films that feature examples of even heavier drinking ("Flight" and "Skyfall"), the low-budget indie "Smashed" still manages to shed slightly more light on the disease while not so much adding anything new to the addiction genre.

Not even yet 30 years old, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a verifiable veteran of schlock horror flicks, which includes an appearance in a Tarantino venture ("Death Proof") and as Mary Todd in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." For Winstead taking on a role as an adult alcoholic in a "serious" movie was a no-brainer. Even if the movie does no business (which is likely), she'll at least get notice and credit for trying something few women (compared to men at least) have done before.

Winstead stars as Kate, an elementary school teacher who is both a binge and maintenance drinker for when the adage "one drink is too many and a thousand aren't enough" fits. From a distance, Kate is blessed/cursed by being married to Charlie (Aaron Paul), another alcoholic who has a family with deep pockets and can work from home as a music critic. Writing about music while hungover in one's kitchen doesn't come close to teaching in the flesh in front of smarter-than-they-look toddlers. When Katie gets green in the gills and tosses her cookies in front of her class, she finally realizes she's hit bottom.

Co-writer/director James Ponsoldt does the audience a huge favor by getting right into the meat of the story. The film opens with Kate waking up buzzed, drinking a beer while showering and sipping from a flask in the parking lot before she starts work. Although she doesn't know it, she's spotted by her vice-principal Dave (Nick Offerman), himself a recovering alcoholic. Dave's pretty cool about Kate's situation (at least initially) and she's even luckier that the school principal (Megan Mullally) is a clueless but well-meaning paper-pushing bureaucrat.

What seems clunky at first -- Kate telling her students she throws up because she's pregnant -- proves to be oddly prophetic later on and marks one the few instances where the filmmaker offers up anything original or groundbreaking.

For the entire second act, Ponsoldt has Kate doing essentially what every alcoholic in every previous film (Denzel Washington in "Flight" for example) does. She denies, she blacks out, she wakes up in strange places, grows ever more desperate and alienates those closest to her and so on. The bottom hits when she steals a bottle of cheap wine from a convenience store at 2 a.m. and wakes up after sleeping under the stars.

Like many a heavy drinker before her, Kate is slow in discovering that giving up the booze isn't going to be the hardest task; it's the fitting into a sober world. Problems don't go away and in some cases they might get worse with the benefit of absolute clarity. It also doesn't help if you're married to someone who isn't quite ready to join you on the dry bandwagon.

"Smashed" isn't a great film; it misses almost as many times as it hits -- but it does bring to light a disease that afflicts far more people (women in particular) than most of us assume. Kate isn't a down-and-out, never-married, singe teen mother junkie -- she's a professional, well-educated woman with purpose and drive. She doesn't like who she's become and has her share of shortcomings. She also realizes the cure to her disease comes with significant drawbacks.

Is it better to go through life sloshed and unaware or realistically clear-eyed and often let down? "Smashed" doesn't answer that big question and in the end offers only other, often more difficult questions. Long-term victory is often followed by greater short term loss. (Sony Classics)