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Review: “Smashed” is an often smart, well-intentioned peek into the perils of alcoholism

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Octavia Spencer in "Smashed."

When Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as a trying-to-recover alcoholic, sits down at a dive bar for the clichéd, last-act relapse that the film requires, she asks the bartender for a whisky, double. It’s hard not to think of the famous follow-up line spoken by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie: “And don’t be stingy, baby.”

That’s a problem. While watching “Smashed,” you might find yourself thinking of better, more striking dramas about drinking (“Days of Wine and Roses,” “Leaving Las Vegas”). It’s a sincere, well-meaning movie. Deriding it is about as fun as kicking a cute puppy. So here’s to its credit: it gets as many things right as it fumbles through its gosh-darn earnestness. There’s room for it at the multiplex, and in the hearts of anyone who can find comfort from its message. And its focus on alcoholism as a problem for young folks just as much as older ones elevates it above the pack.

Married to a writer named Charlie (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”), Winstead’s Kate teaches a first-grade home room of adorable tykes. They’re savvy enough to assume, when she ralphs up in front of them, that she’s pregnant. Well, no. Actually she’s just hung over from the night before.

And so it goes for the first minutes of “Smashed,” as Kate celebrates her days by drinking enough at night to forget them. Change comes in the form of her cuddly-bearish vice principal, Dave (Nick Offerman). Having spied her finishing off a flask in her car in the early a.m., he gently steers her toward the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that have kept him sober for nearly a decade.

The meat of “Smashed” — which, to extend that metaphor, is a touch undercooked — is the difficulty of maintaining a marriage when one of the partners is 12-stepping and the other is still knocking back the brewskies. That’s a smart, underexplored subject. But the movie never really delves into it to the extent you’d expect. It too often seems to be going through the motions, hitting the expected dramatic beats in its short running time. And getting some things fascinatingly wrong.

Kate’s and Charlie’s weekend visit to her oblivious, Bloody Mary-swilling mother (the priceless Mary Kay Place) hits the right notes. But a creepy come-on to Kate from her AA buddy Dave (including wincingly inappropriate language) is exactly what a nine-years-sober person would never, ever do. Unless the point is that he’s really learned nothing from those nine years and 12 steps.

Then there’s the issue of Jenny (Octavia Spencer), Kate’s AA sponsor, whose role is to be the noble, Magical Negro whom Kate gloms onto because, well, she’s the film’s only person of color. The character is neither defined nor offensive enough to allow Spencer to make much of an impression. (In other words, she bakes no dubious chocolate pies here, as she did with Oscar-nabbing results in “The Help.”)

Everybody performs honorably. Winstead is an interesting young actress finding her footing; here she’s alternately dead-on and over the top. Paul is strong in a tricky, gotta-love-that-loser role. So is Offerman, even when he’s saddled with that freaky come-on scene. Offerman’s real-life wife Megan (“Karen Walker”) Mullally has a harder time as Kate’s high school principal; she starts off strong and sensitive, then gets undercut by a script that makes her U-turn into being a chilly bitch.

Problems aside, if you have loved ones dealing with abuse issues, or have them yourself, “Smashed” is worth a look and won’t waste (or betray) your investment in it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uv48b4cpLCA

“Smashed.” With Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated R. 85 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Note for film lovers of all ages: If “Smashed” is not a movie you’re interested in, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema is also offering a weeklong celebration of films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli. That’s the home of the glorious director Hayao Miyazaki. The animated movies featured here aren’t all his, but the schedule includes his all-time masterpiece, “Spirited Away,” as well as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Ponyo,” “Castle in the Sky,” “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” “Porco Rossi” and more. You (or your kids) can thank me later.

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