- - Thursday, October 18, 2012

“Smashed,” a slight, tenderhearted film about a hard-drinking young woman who risks her marriage to try to get sober, is presented in a series of compelling, darkly comic vignettes. While the film gives some elements of this addiction and recovery tale the short shrift in an effort to keep to its brisk pace, the performance from its lead is so magnetic and true that it scarcely matters.

There is not a lot of windup or slow build in “Smashed.” We meet Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she wakes up with a crushing hangover. Before starting her day as a schoolteacher, she braces herself with a few pulls from a flask, but it doesn’t give the desired effect. While in the middle of a spelling lesson, Kate vomits in full view of her first-grade class. As a way out of a potentially career-ending debacle, Kate tells her class that she is pregnant — a story that makes its way to Kate’s boss, the compassionate if nosy Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally).

Kate hasn’t hit bottom yet. Director James Ponsoldt, whose first feature film, “Off the Black,” also dealt with alcoholism, does a remarkable job of showing how Kate and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad”), mythologize the role of drinking in their relationship. In a karaoke bar, Charlie watches Kate grunt her way through a rendition of “Cruel To Be Kind” with an expression of pure adoration, and greets her afterward with the epithet, “My drunk, drunk, drunk angel.” They style themselves as a sort of hipster Nick and Nora from the “Thin Man” movies, swerving in and out of some surprisingly gentle Los Angeles traffic on their bicycles and whiling away weekend days playing an ersatz form of croquet in their backyard.

But this romantic equilibrium is fleeting, as Kate’s alcoholism begins to manifest itself with more acute examples of compulsive behavior. These are revealing of the torments that help drive Kate’s disease. She is not born to the bohemian world she inhabits. In one remarkable soliloquy, delivered rapid-fire after some impromptu drug experimentation, she tells a group of homeless men about her impoverished upbringing and her mother’s habit of buying and freezing fast-food hamburgers in bulk to heat up for meals.

For a movie replete with scenes of drunken excess, Miss Winstead delivers a remarkably nuanced performance. She inflects Kate’s classroom style with a bit of the exuberance that also comes across when she drinks. When Kate begins her recovery, she convincingly conveys a sense of dislocation at having to get to know herself all over again, and make sense of the choices she has made.

What is less convincing here is the neat, 85-minute arc that depicts Kate’s rise from the depths almost without interruption. There is one key hitch that is sort of necessary to unwind the plot point of Kate pretending to be pregnant to disguise her drinking problem, but other than that, she rises almost effortlessly on the wings of her 12-step program.

This easy elision of the drab day-to-day of recovery is a flaw that “Smashed” shares with other movies about drinking: The dive to the bottom of the bottle looks great on film; the slog of healing does not.

★★★

TITLE: “Smashed”

CREDITS: Directed by James Ponsoldt; written by James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke

RATED: Rated R for language, and alcohol and drug abuse

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS