Movie review: 'Smashed' looks at alcoholism without gimmicks

Review • Powerful acting, authentic details in drama.
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In tracing the emotional arc of an alcoholic hitting bottom, director James Ponsoldt's "Smashed" does in 82 minutes what Robert Zemeckis' "Flight" took more than two hours to do — and does it better, without a spectacular computer-animated plane crash.

The crash in "Smashed" is more metaphorical, as Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) realizes that the aftermath of her drinking binges "have gone from embarrassing to scary." One morning, while teaching her first-grade class, she throws up in front of her students — and then lies to the school's principal (Megan Mullally) that she's pregnant. A couple of other incidents end with Kate waking up in the street, and making the decision to go to an AA meeting, something she and her hard-boozing hubby Charlie ("Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul) have always mocked.

Kate gets support from her school's vice-principal, Mr. Davies ("Parks and Recreation's" Nick Offerman) — though not without its awkward, and raunchily comic, moments. Kate also confides in her sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer, from "The Help"), as she makes it to 30 days sober.

But sobriety brings with it new challenges for Kate: A confrontation with her mother (Mary Kay Place), and a need to come clean with her school principal. Biggest of all, though, is trying to maintain her marriage when she's sober and Charlie's still drinking.

Ponsoldt ("Off the Black") and co-writer Susan Burke, who drew from her own experiences with sobriety, find unexpected comedy in Kate's experiences — following Jenny's mantra that when bad things happen, as they often do with alcoholics, laughing is the only alternative to crying. There also are small but telling details, like the unexplained dent in Kate's car, that suggest the thousand different ways Kate and Charlie's lives have been shaped by their boozing.

The script provides a firm launching pad for strong, authentic performances by Paul, Spencer, Offerman and Mullally. But "Smashed" is Winstead's show, and the sometime horror queen ("The Thing," "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter") and former Utah resident proves ready for meatier roles as she finds both laughter and tears in Kate's rocky road to recovery.

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Telling details dot this powerful comedy-drama, with a riveting performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an alcoholic deciding to get sober.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Wednesday, Nov. 21.

Rating • R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use.

Running time • 82 minutes.