The most interesting thing about “Smashed” is the way Kate, the movie’s alcoholic schoolteacher, never looks drunk — at least, not the way drunk people do in the movies. Her face isn’t falling off. Even when she stoops to urinate in a convenience store, she has clarity. It could be just that Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn’t much of an actress or that she’s opted not to be that kind of actress. But the movie might need that kind of actor’s emotional intensity since, dramatically, it doesn’t really have anything else.
Winstead’s dark hair and big eyes look plain in “Smashed,” like Maggie Gyllenhaal neutered of danger. Winstead has an appealing simplicity that makes her seem as though she’s from another era — the 1930s or maybe the ’40s. I imagine the point of this small, pat drama — which James Ponsoldt directed from a script he wrote with Susan Burke — is that Kate could be anybody. She could be teaching your children right now. In her ankle-length, flower-print sundresses, disheveled hair, and baggy sweaters, she dresses like a runaway from a cult, which might be the movie’s other point: That’s what addiction is. Kate winds up at the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that her long-sober vice principal (Nick Offerman) attends. She acquires a sponsor (Octavia Spencer). But, unbelievably, her job might be in jeopardy since she’s lyingly embraced the embarrassing assumption that her vomiting in class means she’s pregnant.
We’ve been here before, fairly recently, too: Ryan Gosling teaching and coaching high in “Half Nelson”; Cameron Diaz drunk on her libido in “Bad Teacher.” The best way to survive public education in movies, apparently, is distracted. “Smashed,” though, is also a portrait of a marriage. Kate’s husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), also drinks, and her sobriety makes things between them less fun (the movie follows the example set by 1962’s “Days of Wine and Roses” template). He doesn’t believe in her support group, but, in his way, he believes in her. This isn’t a movie of dramatic tension or piercing introspection. There’s a sad moment of relapse, and the idea of someone considering exiting a relationship because it’s the healthy thing to do is resonant.
But Ponsoldt leaves the film at that. He hasn’t given it much of a style, unless Sundance can be considered a style. “Smashed” has a score similar to the strumming, chiming, jangling music you hear at that festival’s films. It has the pre-chewed emotional dilemmas and tidy, voiceless moviemaking that characterizes a lot of so-called indie films. You do feel for Kate, though — Winstead is an inarguably warm actor. She’s just not doing the sort of work that transcends the movie’s shortcomings.
Under riskier circumstances, that’s something you could imagine Paul doing. Every performance here is a show of lived-in restraint — Mary Kay Place is Kate’s alcoholic mother; Megan Mullally is the humorless principal — but there’s a fire that burns in Paul’s eyes. He’s committed to his smallish but crucial role. Look at the focus in his face when Charlie rides his bike hammered. He topples over, and the earth shakes a little. You’re so wired to Paul that you start to think “Smashed” is about the wrong drunk.