You have your pick of two alcohol-abuse dramas opening locally today: One is "Flight," starring Denzel Washington, and the other is "Smashed," featuring relative newcomer Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The big-name Hollywood project turns out to be the deeper film, though "Smashed" has its rewards.
The main one is Winstead, who pumped some life into "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" as Mary Todd and here plays Kate Hannah, a youngish schoolteacher. She's a charming wisp of a thing who nevertheless drinks like a sailor with hollow legs. She tends to wet the bed after a bender, which doesn't bother her party-hearty husband, Charlie (a very good Aaron Paul), but Kate finally hears alarm bells the morning she wakes up in a vacant lot somewhere in Los Angeles. A sober co-worker, Dave, brings Kate to her first meeting. "Things have gone from embarrassing to scary," she says.
"Smashed," written by Susan Burke and director James Ponsoldt, wisely avoids the usual scenes: There's no apocalyptic "bottoming out," no cue-the-orchestra triumph over the drink. The movie is more interested in how a hip 20-something handles the first major obstacle of her carefree life. As Charlie keeps drinking with his amiable, aimless buddies, Kate begins to see them through newly serious eyes.
"Flight" is a less intimate film, but it's more compelling because its hero, a troubled airline pilot, has so much at stake. Kate is so youthfully resilient -- and her recovery so quick and easy -- that it's hard to worry much about her. Kate's unflappable sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer in a small role), and the weird but well-meaning Dave have both done much harder living. They might have made for more interesting stories.
PLOT A young schoolteacher's decision to sober up puts a strain on her marriage.
RATING R (language, sexuality, adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE Youngish characters freshen up an old story, but their carefree lives don't make for the most compelling drama. Winstead, a relative newcomer, handily carries this slender film.