You’re on notice in the first 45 seconds of James Polsoldt’s well-intentioned “Smashed.” It’s going to make sure you know exactly how much ugliness is involved in being an alcoholic.
If you think that bed-wetting makes the point quite well, just wait three more minutes. That’s when the young heroine of the movie – well played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead – shows us a first-grade teacher whose buzz lets her be charming and inspiring for her kids but doesn’t prevent her finally from vomiting into a classroom wastebasket.
“Are you pregnant?” they ask. As good an explanation as any, she figures. So she goes along with it.
What follows is one of the distinctly lesser movies in one of the more remarkable waves in movies of the last 15-years: call it, if you want, the Cinema of Recovery, based on the conspicuously large number of people in American film and television who have straightened themselves out in anonymous 12-step recovery programs and have resulted in an ever-growing number of films about the experience.
It’s no accident. Storytelling is so basic to the recovery movement – where honesty is key (“it’s hard to live your life honestly” says the young alcoholic’s sponsor, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) that there was no way the massive number of stories heard by Hollywood addicts in recovery wouldn’t somehow find their way into movies and TV programs.
And so they have. What used to be rare in the era of Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” and only slightly less rare when Blake Edwards’ “Days of Wine and Roses” came along, has become something close to commonplace.
Sometimes the result is a first-rate film and performance – Denzel Washington, for instance, in Robert Zemeckis’ very recent “Flight.”
“Smashed” is indie film-making on another level entirely based on a story that is the gender opposite of the one enacted so brilliantly by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses” ‑ the alcoholic young couple who have to figure out whether a life together is compatible with only one of them getting sober.
It’s the school teacher heroine in “Smashed.” Her stay-at-home husband has no intention of ending his alcohol consumption. She, on the other hand, scares herself to death when on one lost evening she samples crack with an addict she just met.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore. I think I want to slow down.” she says. “I might need help.”
And she follows through. Her sympathetic vice principal – who ultimately reveals himself to be all too human – gets her to a meeting. Where she meets the witty and wise woman who will become her sponsor. Octavia Spencer, at that point, briefly saves the movie from being one where it is not only everyone in it who seems to know less than the audience but the people who made it, too.
The music to the movie, for instance, is all wrong. Its gaiety and good cheer isn’t ironic counterpoint to the raw, naturalistic facts of alcoholism, it’s just impossibly clumsy.
And when our teacher heroine finally figures out her fate and struggles to change it, what you hear is pitilessly dull pseudo-folk guitar picking. Compare what you see in “Smashed,” for instance, to Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and you fully understand that “Smashed” is a smart enough movie to be true but, sadly, neither true or smart enough to be good.