Alcohol isn’t just the great social lubricant. It can also be the glue holding troubled relationships together in a state of inebriated dysfunction. In the powerful, uncompromising relationship drama Smashed, a hard-partying schoolteacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her slacker music-journalist husband (Aaron Paul) share a bond sealed through poisonous co-dependence and alcoholism. Winstead fancies herself the life of the party, a fun, freewheeling drunk (albeit also a sloppy, mercurial one), but after bottoming out with an ugly blur of crack-smoking, public urination, and professional humiliation, Winstead is forced to concede she has a problem. The equally hard-drinking Paul isn’t willing to make any such concessions, and resents his wife’s newfound sobriety. When Winstead enrolls in Alcoholics Anonymous at the behest of a lovestruck coworker (Nick Offerman), the boozy bond holding their marriage together begins to fall apart.
Early in Smashed, a hungover Winstead vomits in a trash bin in front of her students, a humiliation that has dramatic ramifications for both her character and the film. Embarrassed, she pretends to be pregnant, to the almost unseemly delight of a principal (Megan Mullally) intent on living out her maternal fantasies through Winstead. With its sitcom artifice and blatant contrivance, this development clashes with the unadorned realism of the rest of the film. Better is Paul and Winstead’s relationship, which is defined by mutual enabling that initially passes for tenderness, but morphs into something darker and more unsettling once Winstead unsteadily embraces sobriety while Paul continues to lose himself in a boozy haze. To its credit, Smashed doesn’t posit AA as a magic cure-all: Sobriety creates its own set of problems above and beyond the rift it causes in Winstead and Paul’s marriage. If anything, Winstead’s life becomes more difficult after she stops drinking and is forced to face the mess she’s made without falling back on the crutch of beer or whiskey.
In spite of the out-of-place pregnancy subplot, Smashed is a film of pummeling intensity and bruised emotions. It’s a refreshingly complex look at how people’s emotional development can play havoc with their partners’ security and sense of self, especially if that security and sense of self are shaky to begin with. Smashed strikes some hopeful notes, but it’s realistic enough to realize that for recovering alcoholics, there are no tidy happy endings, just the hard-won but tenuous satisfaction of fighting off a rapacious demon one day at a time.