Back in 1962, comic mastermind Blake Edwards made a rare foray into serious territory by making a 117-minute commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous in the film Days of Wine and Roses (USA). However, in spite of making a film that was essentially an infomercial, Edwards was able to make something compelling. How? He knew to draw interesting, lovable characters. He knew to cast real-life alcoholic and truly brilliant actor Jack Lemmon (Who was also known mostly for comedy.) alongside the always-beautiful and charismatic Lee Remick in the lead roles. He knew to make the film about more than Joe Clay’s struggle for sobriety making the film far more universal than an AA commercial has any right to be.
Immediately upon reading a plot summary for Smashed, Days of Wine and Roses leaps to mind: it’s a film about two alcoholics whose relationship becomes strained when the wife decides to get sober. Not only was the plot nearly identical, but like the earlier film it stars a supremely talented male actor and a gorgeous and charismatic female actor who has shown some ability in limited roles before. Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke clearly built the film on top of the frame of Days of Wine and Roses, which just left the question of whether they understood what makes that earlier film work or were instead just making another AA commercial.
It turns out, the answer is that they were just making an AA commercial.
I often complain about films trying to make too many points, and this film did not fall victim to that problem. It instead chose to try to make no points at all. It told a narrative about an alcoholic couple and didn’t bother to broaden out its themes at all, instead preferring to load up on AA talking points in a way that was preachy, dull, and unwelcome. If you want to know about how great AA really is, I suggest something else, and if you just want to hear the “good side” of AA, go ahead and go back to Days of Wine and Roses instead.
As it is, Ponsoldt and Burke keep a tightly-constructed narrative and build one character–Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s lead–well, though they do not really bother to provide any other characterization, including for her husband. They don’t lose focus and leave their main plot often (essentially just for a couple of bizarre scenes between Winstead and Nick Offerman), and that plot never gets overcomplicated or too cheesily simple, and they deserve some credit for avoiding the histrionics that sometimes accompany similar plots. It’s satisfying as far as an empty narrative goes, but there’s a pretty low limit to how far an empty narrative can go.
As a result of the lack of characterization, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is really the only actor who gets anything to work with, and she turns in an excellent performance. She displays a wide range of emotions convincingly, and makes a character who could easily come across as ridiculous work through the sheer force of her performance. There is nothing more one could ask of her. The great Aaron Paul is wasted playing a watered-down, uninteresting version of Jesse Pinkman, while Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman turn in credible small performances that seem well outside of their usual comfort zones. No one is bad, but they don’t have the space to do anything interesting.
Visually, Ponsoldt and cinematographer Tobias Datum don’t do much to draw attention. The film doesn’t use color, lighting, or anything else to make its points or emphasize emotions but rather just presents itself simply. The lack of any care about the visual or any imagination to the visual is unfortunate, because it pushes the film down into made-for-television territory. It’s not incompetent, but you can get everything from the film by listening to it with no picture.
Overall, it’s not a film worth watching, which is a shame because it wastes an excellent cast and a great lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. If you’re a really big AA booster, you will probably find much to enjoy about this film, but for everyone else it’s really a clunker.