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An honest, offbeat approach to alcoholism in 'Smashed'

'Smashed,' with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, tries to capture the highs and lows of alcoholism in a naturalistic way. It's semi-autobiographical for cowriter Susan Burke.

October 10, 2012|By Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times
  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director James Ponsoldt are promoting their new film, "Smashed."
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director James Ponsoldt are promoting their… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

There have been plenty of films over the years that grapple with alcoholism, a wide swath that includes "The Lost Weekend" and "Leaving Las Vegas," "The Shining" and "Arthur." Few have attempted to capture the highs and lows in quite the same naturalistic way as "Smashed."

The movie, which debuts Friday, is a breakout role for 27-year-old Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has played supporting characters in such films as "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

In "Smashed," Winstead portrays a young Los Angeles woman who comes to acknowledge her drinking problem and is determined to do something about it. That sounds simple enough, but the changes she undergoes affect her marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul), her job as a schoolteacher and seemingly all aspects of her life.

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"The goal wasn't to shock, the goal was to create a hang-out movie," the film's director and cowriter, James Ponsoldt, said in a recent interview. "What if Mike Leigh made a movie about young people in love who were drunk all the time? That's a movie I'd want to watch."

"Smashed," featuring a supporting cast that includes Nick Offerman, Mary Kay Place, Megan Mullally and recent Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), was a critical hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.

Regarding the film's depiction of entering recovery, the 34-year-old director said, "We were never interested in a how-to, a beat-by-beat of this is what it would be like. That would be really boring. But what there is of it better be honest."

The film's story grew out of a friendship between Ponsoldt and his cowriter, Susan Burke, who found themselves trading true-life tales of their once wild times. The pair agreed that Burke's stories seemed stranger and more compelling.

Burke, now 30, has been sober for six years. Though Winstead's character Kate isn't explicitly autobiographical, there are elements of Burke's struggles that she and Ponsoldt incorporated into the script. Mostly, Burke wanted to capture aspects of her own experience that she felt hadn't ever been portrayed in a movie dealing with addiction.

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"Just romanticizing alcoholism is kind of done a lot and I don't think that it's romantic or cool," said Burke. "It's sad." First and foremost, she and Ponsoldt decided that a story about overcoming addiction didn't need to be strictly deathly serious. For a film about a downer subject, "Smashed" often has an upbeat, lightly comedic quality to it.

"It's a really hard line to walk and I really hope we got it right," added Burke, referring to the mix of tones in the film. "There's a balance of what to include that's sad and weird, but there are funny ways to talk about it without exploiting it. These things happen in real life and it doesn't have to be horrible to talk about it and have some sense of humor about it."

One of the delicate balances dealt with in the film centers on Kate beginning to come to terms with her addiction while her husband, Charlie, isn't yet ready to look at his own drinking problem.

"You can tell they do love each other, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are right for each other," said Paul, who recently won an Emmy for his role on "Breaking Bad."

"Smashed" was shot in just 19 days on a shoestring budget of around $500,000. The picture, independently financed by Los Angeles producers Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling (who won a special jury prize at Sundance), is an unexpected showcase for Winstead, whose other supporting roles include parts in the films "Live Free or Die Hard," "The Thing" "and "Death Proof."

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Her more prominent role in "Smashed" came at just the right time.

"It's just that things sort of shifted for me," Winstead said in an interview at an L.A. cafe. "I was always really fulfilled by working in whatever capacity I could. I just loved being on set and working. And then one day it just sort of stopped being fulfilling... and if I have this amazing opportunity to work in this awesome industry and I'm bored, that means I'm doing something wrong. I'm not taking advantage of the opportunities that have been given in the right way."

Ponsoldt viewed Winstead's experience in genre films as a plus. Drawing a connection to her previous roles, the director said, "In a lot of ways, that goes perfectly with a person who's struggling. If the character felt fragile or weak you would pity her and she would feel broken. You would feel sorry for her and you'd never see yourself [as] that person. It was really important that when this person gets knocked down, you're willing to believe she'll get back up."

Ponsoldt has been busy editing his next movie, "The Spectacular Now," a high school drama shot in his hometown of Athens, Ga.

"I love movies about totally screwed-up people trying to fix themselves," said Ponsoldt.

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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