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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sundance 2012: Mary Elizabeth Winstead Pours a Shot of Talent into 'Smashed'

In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage threw himself into the torturous, roller coaster ride of alcoholism. What a drink could enable to do was over-the-top, but frighteningly plausible. Here's a guy whose desire for liquor was so strong, he'd even be taking swigs from a bottle at the bottom of a swimming pool. The performance was harrowing, and helped Cage nab a Best Actor Oscar.

But there's a flip side to the arc of an addiction that's less overt, but equally powerful. In Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim, The Thing) plays Kate, an alcoholic who quickly realizes, after dry heaving in front of her kindergarteners and waking up one morning with a bunch of homeless people under a bridge, that she has a serious problem. Facing a drunk husband (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), a distant mother and the embarrassment of her situation, Kate attempts a twelve-step program in AA. Instead of putting the emphasis on the craze of drunken behavior, Smashed focuses on the uphill battle of recovery—a bumpy road with compelling revelations.

Winstead is an actress with immense skill fighting her own battle: landing the few, meaty leading lady roles in Hollywood. Her genre work proves potential. But her role in Smashed? Something special (but no surprise it could only come about in the indie world). Winstead has her moments in a drunken, abrasive stupor—a one-shot scene where Kate comes home trashed and lays down the law to her husband is gut-wrenching—but the moments where she struggles to stay afloat, learns to trust her AA sponsor (Octavia Spencer, who proves The Help wasn't a fluke), and accepts her new course in life, are the most poignant.

Addiction is a heavy topic, and it's difficult to inject levity into the life-shattering situations. Leaving Las Vegas, Requiem for a Dream, Shame—all fantastic films, all difficult to stomach. Smashed finds welcome relief through inspired casting, including Paul, Spencer, Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation) as Kate's Vice Principal and AA buddy, and Megan Mullally (Will & Grace, Party Down) as the school's critical Principal. Winstead is malleable, balancing the comedy and drama without hesitation. In a scene in which the Vice Principal opens up to Kate with way too much info, Winstead finds the right beats to play for laughs (unavoidable when the word "moist" is introduced to the conversation) while never losing the reality of the movie's serious scenario. The movie walks the fine line between "afternoon special" thanks to moments of melodrama, but Winstead is an anchor that never looses footing.

With a fresh perspective, Smashed doesn't feel like repeat viewing on the subject of alcoholism. The movie continues the Sundance 2012 trend of strong female leads, Winstead proving herself adept in much more than running around and looking scared. When Smashed eventually hits theaters, it'll be one too catch. You won't want to hit the bar afterward, but hey, maybe that's a good thing.

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